By Martha Koester, El Paso Water
One thing was certain after the Two Nations One Water: U.S.-Mexico Border Water Summit concluded March 2 at El Paso Water’s TecH2O Learning Center. Policymakers, researchers and industry experts from both sides of the border care deeply about water sustainability and are committed to solutions to ensure the long-term vitality of their respective communities. About 300 convened at the two-day event, eager and ready to work together.
Lead organizer Ed Archuleta, Director of Water Initiatives for the University of Texas at El Paso, welcomed the diverse audience to the “Olympics of Water on the Border.”
“Despite all the rhetoric in the news about building border walls and immigration issues, those of you in the water industry know that water is the most important issue on the U.S.-Mexico border,” Archuleta said.
Water industry experts came prepared to explore long-term water supply strategies for the border’s future. By 2020, the border population is expected to grow to 19 million, stressing border water resources. Theresa Maldonado, dean of the University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Engineering, offered a framework for participants to consider.
“We have a complex problem here, and we have the right people at the table – water scientists, engineers, policymakers, financial backers, etc., but we may need computer scientists, more mathematicians,” Maldonado said, also advocating for the inclusion of other stakeholders. “Think about the big picture instead of your own area in the water discussion, think about how we can use data wisely to inform our future, think about UTEP and how we can partner with you, and always think about the future.”
Summit participants from both sides of the international border agreed that the challenge of the future is how best to work across boundaries – particularly when water crosses states as well as nations.
“There are more than 600 transboundary aquifers in existence all over the world, said Jacob Petersen-Perlman, a research analyst at the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center. He shared insights on the Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Program and a particular binational study that brought together researchers from both countries who collaborated to collect data and jointly prepare binational maps of the San Pedro River aquifer, which spans the border between the states of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
“In order for a compact to happen in the future, we have to learn more about what we are dealing with, what we are sharing, and the challenges and successes of each government,” he said.
Participants also heard from negotiators directly involved in the recent Colorado River Agreement – Minute 323, which is an addendum to the 1944 Water Treaty between U.S. and Mexico. The binational agreement establishes how the U.S. and Mexico share water resources from the Colorado River watershed system that encompasses seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico.
The Minute 323 agreement is touted for demonstrating collaboration at its best, improving the reliability of the Colorado River water supply for everyone who uses it while also providing water for environmental restoration of the Colorado River Delta that empties into Mexico’s Gulf of California. Central to the unique agreement was a coalition of six nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that helped build trust between both countries to move forward.
“The NGO role has been to advocate for restoration of the delta, but also to advocate binational conversation since it was only though cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico that we saw any hope for restoration,” said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Project director for the National Audubon Society and key negotiator for Minute 323.
U.S. Commissioner Ed Drusina of the International Boundary and Water Commission agreed that the greatest challenge was in building trust. Sharing a parallel structure with Mexico, the IBWC offers binational solutions during the application of boundary and water treaties of the U.S. and Mexico.
“Minute 323 is a matter of protection against risk,” Drusina said. “We must take into consideration what is the obvious interest – 40 million people depend on the Colorado River for economic and household needs. An Arizona State University study found that users of the Colorado River system contribute 19 percent of the U.S. GDP.”
Drusina praised the extraordinary collaboration on Minute 323 and said the agreement has built platforms that could apply to other basins.
“I see nothing but a very bright future [for continued collaboration] as well as developing new long-term commitments on the Rio Grande,” he said.
Commissioner Roberto Fernando Salmón Castelo, of Mexico’s International Boundary and Water Commission (CILA), said it was beneficial for Mexico to get involved in the Colorado River basin’s advance.
“Minute 323 shows what we are capable of producing when we work together,” Salmón said. “We were very creative during this thought process and found new ways of doing things. With confidence and trust, we can achieve what neither of the two countries ever thought possible.”
Innovation is the key to resilience
Some panelists pointed to the uncertainty around drought and changing climate patterns and the challenges those bring. Modern tools give us a window into the past that we can use to prepare for the future, said Gregg Gutzler, University of New Mexico professor of meteorology and climatology.
“Drought is part of life around the Rio Grande, and everyone who chooses to survive and thrive here needs to plan for that,” Gutzler said. “The Mimbres people who eventually disappeared didn’t know what was going to hit them, but we do.”
Bill Hargrove, director of UTEP’s Center for Environmental Research Management, spoke about a research project focusing on water management for the middle Rio Grande area, which has already yielded warnings for the future affecting the area from Elephant Butte Reservoir down to the Rio Grande convergence with the Rio Conchos.
“This system doesn’t seem very resilient, and this shouldn’t be surprising,” Hargrove said. “If you spend out Elephant Butte every year, you shouldn’t be surprised that you use everything you have built up,” adding that building reserves are essential to water security and resiliency. ”The challenges in the region are not only the uncertainty of climate and the certainty of drought, but also growing demands for water and growing competition for water.”
Michael Hightower, a researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Water and the Environment, warned that the Southwest region is 100 years into a 300-year arid cycle, which has resulted in a 50 percent reduction in surface water flows.
“We are going to have to look at nontraditional resources, and brackish water is one of those for New Mexico, Arizona and Texas,” Hightower said.
“Instead of $20 billion into border walls, if you put up to $2 billion in water infrastructure you will have enough water for 10 million additional people with economic development and future returns on investment.”
Hightower presented research showing that brackish water, desalination, wastewater reuse and aquifer storage are the cheapest short-term opportunities in terms of energy demand. He showed a graph indicating rising fresh water costs and falling costs for treating brackish water will eventually converge. Increasingly, we need to view our resources as “one water,” he said.
Gilbert Trejo, EPWater’s Chief Technical Officer, spoke about the utility’s storied relationship with water reuse, beginning in the 1940s with the treatment of river water for use as drinking water. Communities upstream of El Paso treat wastewater to high standards and empty into the Rio Grande. EPWater began its reclaimed water program for irrigation in the 1960s, and then began using reclaimed water to recharge an aquifer in 1985. An advanced water purification project is the next logical step, and has thrust EPWater to the forefront of innovative water solution conversations. The project could be one of the first true pipe-to-pipe, direct potable reuse projects in the country.
“This project is like eight never-ending wells we could turn on forever that will preserve our aquifers,” Trejo said. “Yes it is expensive, but there is a cost associated with eight never-ending wells that we could run forever and preserve our aquifer.”
EPWater has been on the front lines of investing and planning for a growing population and has built up a portfolio of water resources to include desalination, water reuse and conservation. The utility’s planning process spans 50 years into the future and eventually will feature: Advanced Water Purification, which will transform treated wastewater into fresh drinking water; expanded desalination to leverage vast brackish portions of the aquifer; and importation of water from an aquifer beneath Dell City 90 miles away.
Mexican water sector experts also spoke about innovative solutions across the border. Germán Jesús Lizola Márquez, Director of the Water Commission of Baja California, spoke about the Rosarito Desalination Plant in the Playas de Rosarito. The proposed seawater desalination plant would desalinate as much as 100 million gallons per day and operate through a public-private partnership. It has the potential to supply water to 2 million people in Tijuana and Mexicali.
Though the project has received scrutiny, water experts stand by it. “We’re talking about the future, we’re talking about water, we’re talking about the fact that the coastline of Baja California cannot just depend on the Colorado River,” said Carlos de la Parra of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Though the shadow of a Cape Town, Africa-water crisis loomed large in summit discussions, both counterparts across borders displayed a willingness to work together and focus on water security solutions.
Richard Seline, executive director and senior advisor at AccelerateH2O, said with all the powerful technical experience at the conference, the potential exists to address future water issues of the border. Still needed, he said, is the political will to prioritize water and new economic models that more appropriately value water and water resources.
Mexico’s Commissioner Salmón said the international summit and ongoing dialogue will help strengthen U.S.-Mexico bonds.
“We want water to be a theme that unites us, not divides us,” he said.
Martha Koester is the public information coordinator at El Paso Water. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and has worked for the U.S. Army’s NCO Journal, the El Paso Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the (Salem, Oregon) Statesman Journal