News Feature | May 20, 2016

Donald Trump Quiet On Water Issues With Mexican Border Plan

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Donald Trump has had a lot to say about the Mexican border, but he has yet to speak at length on what is arguably one of the trickiest and most important border issues: water.

As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Trump has proposed to build a wall along a large part of the U.S.-Mexico border. He says he will compel Mexico to pay for it.

The Trump campaign writes in its wall proposal: “We have the moral high ground here, and all the leverage. It is time we use it in order to Make America Great Again.”

But immigration is just one issue tied to the Mexican border. The other fraught border issue is water. And it turns out water treaties between Mexico and the U.S. could actually complicate Trump’s plans to build a wall.

“In some places, treaty obligations and river flood zones would require the wall be built well into the United States, which would be awkward if the Mexican government is paying for it and overseeing the project. In addition to creating a no man's land between the wall and the actual border, one government or the other would have to buy large amounts of private property as well as land owned by at least one Indian tribe whose territory straddles the border in southern Arizona,” the Associated Press reported.

As the San Antonio Express-News put it in a recent editorial: “Psst, Trump: Did you know that treaties with Mexico prevent it or the U.S. from building within the river’s flood plains and that, in Texas, most land along the border is privately owned? Take them through eminent domain?”

Even without a massive effort to build a wall, water is a tense issue between the U.S. and Mexico. The Rio Grande, a river dividing Texas and Mexico, is of vital economic significance to both sides. Those tensions are poised to grow in the coming years.

An analysis by Stratfor, a global intelligence publication, described the dilemma like this: “Growing demands and environmental pressures will increase tension over water resources in the coming decades. Unlike the waters of the Colorado River, which originate entirely in the United States, the watershed of the Rio Grande is more evenly split between the United States and Mexico. Although Mexico depends on the water resources far more than the United States does, both nations are vulnerable to increasing water stress, making it difficult for them to meet anticipated water treaty obligations.”

A 1944 water treaty requires that Mexico receive two-thirds of the water from the Rio Grande’s tributaries, and the U.S. has a claim on the rest. Under the terms of a treaty, "the United States is obliged to give Mexico water from the Colorado River," The Washington Post reported.

In practice, Mexico often incurs deficits that it is expected to make up later. It repaid previous debts in January.

“The uncertainty over consistent volumes of delivery sometimes leads to calls for political action, especially for consumers in Texas,” the analysis said.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state agency, "The failure of Mexico to consistently deliver water in accordance with the 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico significantly harms Texas interests."

The rise of manufacturing in Mexico and population growth are expected to increase demand on the river, according to the Stratfor analysis. As a result, stability brought by yesterday’s treaties may begin to chafe.

“Overuse of water resources and environmental stress continue to rise, and basin conditions are poised to prevent amiable management of the water system in the long term,” the analysis said.

Technologies such as water recycling are likely to become increasingly important on both sides.

“Dwindling water supplies could hamper manufacturing growth and energy production in the basin, especially for Mexico. Moreover, Mexico's likely failure to meet delivery quotas will only ramp up tensions with the United States in the coming decades,” the analysis said.