Update: the agreement was approved 09/27/17
The pressure is on to finalize the US Mexico water agreement currently being referred to as Minute 32X. Its predecessor, Minute 319, doesn’t expire until the end of 2017, but there are various reasons some are interested in extending it sooner than later. Problems with Minute 319 were examined in “Desert Water Market.” Discussion on the new agreement is characterized by vagueness and uncertainty, although an interview with Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke provides a little bit more clarity.
Minute 32X, to which a number will be assigned when it’s more official, will apparently include newer “conservation” projects, and renew the Colorado River Delta restoration efforts. Bi-national desalination specifically involving Arizona will also be part of the agreement.
In a video posted on December 23, Buschatzke said that, “We are working to finalize [Minute 32X] as quickly as possible.” Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on December 15 that negotiators are trying to have the agreement signed before January 20th, although it’s difficult to say whether the failure of US officials to get the Drought Contingency Plan for the lower Colorado River basin completed by the end of the Colorado River Water Users Association conference on December 16 delays this at all.
Dibble also reported that Bill Hasencamp, Colorado River Resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District stated, “If we’re not done by January, that doesn’t mean we still don’t have an agreement with Mexico. We want to make sure it’s done right rather than done fast.”
Texas State Representative, Lyle Larson wrote a column printed January 3, 2017 called, “A tale of two rivers and what happens when Mexico doesn’t pay its water debt,” urging a delay on Minute 32X to negotiate an agreement that incorporates joint management of both the Colorado River and the Rio Grande because of issues with Mexico’s release of water that runs north into Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. He stated that IBWC is within weeks of approving Minute 32X.
So, whether this agreement will be signed soon is still up in the air. In the meantime, there was a lawsuit filed on December 12 by an ecological activist and lawyer for el Comité Ecológico Sonora-Baja California, Francisco Javier Zepeda Moreno over Mexico’s water being kept in the US. In an article posted on January 31st, he reiterated that he will not back down regarding this struggle.
And as discussed in “Men attacked trying to enter Mexicali water meeting related to US funds,” transparency and participation around what is to be done or has been done with any of the $18 million owed by the US to Mexico for projects meant to save water are among the main issues with the 2012 agreement.
Buschatzke said of the “conservation” projects, that some of the water will be stored in Lake Mead and some will go to the United States parties (likely the Arizona and California water agencies that were involved in the last round of projects). These are the types of projects like canal-linings such as that proposed for Canal Revolución that did not seem to have even been started due to the potential for impacting groundwater and associated wells.
The main problem with such projects is that the water “saved” by canal lining is just water that isn’t going into the aquifer; water that is depended upon by farmers, the ecosystem, and others. A major reason for Minute 319’s environmental component has to do with the impact of the lining of the All-American Canal on the groundwater people had depended on for decades. As of 2009, the water no longer seeps into the aquifer and the US was facing litigation because of it.
The quantity “saved” by the proposed conservation projects constitutes water kept from seeping into the ground within Mexico which is then claimed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and the Central Arizona Project in exchange for their contribution of $10 million towards these projects as part of the Minute. This is essentially an international water transfer. This type of arrangement is modeled on earlier such schemes in California developed and promoted by the Environmental Defense Fund, who have also been involved in pollution trading and other market-based “solutions” to environmental problems.
Buschatzke also noted that, “Some of those projects also include opportunities for bi-national desalination projects between Mexico and the United States including Arizona…” There’s a desalination plant in the works for Rosarito, Baja California, facilitated by a working group created in Minute 319, with potential plans for conveying water across the border to Southern California, but there hadn’t been anything definitive regarding desal for Arizona. While things are slow going, a public-private partnership (P3) for the Rosarito plant was signed last August with plans to start supplying water to Baja California, the first P3 since the Asociaciones Público Privadas law passed in 2014 allowing for some level of privatization for projects such as those involving water.
October 14 marked the end of a public comment period for the draft environmental impact statement for the Otay Mesa Conveyance and Disinfection System Project that would potentially supply California with desalinated water from the Rosarito plant. This impact statement does not address any environmental impacts to Mexico from the plant’s activities, as NEPA only covers the United States. In a sense, California and Arizona can take advantage of importing water while not having to deal with the environmental consequences, which will be significant (not only from direct effects from the plant, but also the increase in energy consumption) the way Mexico will have to. As California has been learning with their Carlsbad desal plant, the largest in the US, there are various problems that come with desalination, even as it’s becoming less expensive.
The ADWR’s Strategic Vision determined that Arizona’s water supply will likely have to be augmented by desalinated ocean water which would come from California or Mexico (of course shutting down the mines is not considered). The Mexican option has already been studied, initiated by CAP, SRP, and ADWR in 2008, focusing on a Puerto Peñasco location.
Although completion of a desalination project for Arizona would not be any time soon and it’s generally regarded as too expensive and complicated, there have been steps made in that direction. In 2014, a Water Desalination Agreement of Cooperation was signed between ADWR and Sonora at an Arizona-Mexico Commission event and another study was released. A desalination committee started up out of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Council and held their first meeting last September (pdf of powerpoint presentation). There was discussion about the committee focusing on in-state smaller-scale brackish desal and not so much Mexican desal, though this remains to be seen.
Urgency is felt by the Minute 32X negotiators to complete the agreement before Trump becomes president because of his antagonism towards Mexico. On the one hand, he may impede bi-national cooperation, yet on the other hand, his penchant for privatization and market-based policies may cause him to favor desalination especially over more environmentally responsible water solutions.
While not mentioned by Buschatzke, ADWR’s news site reported that Minute 32X would include, “an on-going wetlands project in the Colorado River delta.”
Various concerns around this arrangement are explored in “Desert Water Market.” Among these are that the Colorado River Delta Trust that supplied a third of the water for the delta, as arranged through Minute 319, purchased permanent water rights far below US prices primarily to supply water to specific private conservation areas run by Pronatura Noroeste, one of the NGOs that created the Trust. They’re also involved in the international carbon offset scheme called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. The Trust partners with Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) which sells water offsets in the region. In fact, the Colorado River Delta has been mentioned in the media a bit lately because of the Good Traveler Program, which partners with BEF to sell carbon offsets along with water offsets through airports.
Various companies benefit in indirect ways from the so-called ecosystem services provided through delta restoration, including in the alleged mitigation of damage of the activities of energy and mineral extraction. Overall, evidence points to this scheme benefiting private interests more than the ecosystem.