In the arid north of Mexico, the Colorado River increases uncertainty

By SUMAN NAISHADHAM and GREGORY BULL

September 12, 2022 GMT

MEXICALI (AP) – When Gilbert Quintana, a Mexicali Valley farmer, learned he would soon lose 15% of his water supply, he did what he had done earlier in a pinch: buy water from other farmers in the north of Mexico.

But Quintana fears that such alternative solutions will not always be possible. The water used to irrigate its 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of Brussels sprouts, green onions and lettuce comes from the overfished Colorado River, which a mega drought in the American West due in part to climate change is rapidly running out.

Buying water from other farmers is often the only way to grow more of the same acreage, Quintana said, “but it’s in the short term.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star, and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore river pressures in 2022.

When the Colorado River reaches Mexico, only a fraction of its water is left for the fields of the Mexicali Valley and millions of people in the northwestern desert cities. Now, that supply is more at risk than ever.

Water experts and scientists say Mexico, at the end of the river, will need to find more water for the two north-western states that depend on it. They say the country will also need to use its supply more efficiently. But Mexico has been slow to act.

“It hit us so fast that it took us a while to realize it’s not a drought, it’s a new era. It’s a new regime, ”said Carlos de la Parra, professor of urban and environmental studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

The National Water Commission declared a state of emergency in four northern states in July. About 65% of the country was facing drought. A swath stretching from Tijuana to Matamoros, more than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers), is still barren, with water closures common in cities and towns and key water basins near historic lows.

Tijuana, the sprawling border town of 2 million people, is particularly dependent on Colorado. About 90% of its water comes from the river. Parts of the city cooked this summer when the taps ran dry, sometimes due to mismanagement, with local water authorities blaming the drought.

“It’s drought related mismanagement,” said Mario López Pérez, a World Bank consultant who previously worked for Mexico’s National Water Commission.

To bridge the gap, the government has sent tankers, which is common in Mexican cities, to neighborhoods with no running water. People also bought water from private sellers.

DESALINATION PLANS, WATER RECYCLING

For more than a decade, Baja California officials have talked about building a large desalination plant in a seaside town near Tijuana. In 2016, state officials finalized a plan only to shelve it four years later, citing its high cost. Energy-intensive technology works by removing impurities from seawater. Mexico has other small desalination plants in other parts of the state and the country.

Roberto Salmón helped oversee the US-Mexico border and river treaties as Mexico’s representative to the International Border and Water Commission between 2009 and 2020. He said a desalination plant would greatly help Tijuana.

“But discussions have been going on since I joined the commission,” Salmón said, “and there is still no plant.”

A single aqueduct running through the state, including a rugged 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) mountain pass, brings water from the Colorado River to Tijuana. “It’s a one-source city,” Salmón said.

Officials and companies have been talking similarly for years about using recycled treated wastewater to increase the city’s water supply, but the city has little to prove.

UNCERTAINTY FOR FARMERS

Maria-Elena Giner, United States Representative at IBWC, said the United States is looking into projects that could help Mexico conserve more water than the Colorado River with about $ 32 million becoming available in 2017. The money it could be earmarked for lining leaking canals, helping farmers switch to water-efficient drip irrigation and paying others to leave fields unplanted, he said.

But getting Mexico to use far less water – and quickly – will be difficult.

“We made a lot of low fruit,” Giner said. “Our problem right now is how we do the most difficult projects in Mexico.”

Mexican officials, meanwhile, say water conservation should be balanced with needs.

“We need to consider how we can contribute,” said Francisco Bernal, who heads the National Water Commission in Baja California. “But we also need to see that there is no serious impact on our allocation.”

Since 1944, Mexico has received just over a third of what California can take from the Colorado River each year. Next year it will lose 7% of what, or more than what the industrial border town of Mexicali – population 1 million – uses in one year, according to Alfonso Cortez-Lara, professor of environment at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexicali who research cross-border water issues.

Nicolás Rodriguez, director of an irrigation district in the Mexicali Valley, said the water shortage (Mexico lost 5% of its total supply from the river this year) is starting to cause friction among the irrigation district managers. and farmers.

Mexicali Valley farmers produce an almost identical range of crops, most for export from the United States, to that grown just north of the border in California’s Imperial Valley. Leafy greens, broccoli, alfalfa, and wheat are common. Farms tend to be much smaller.

Rodriguez said he has been encouraging farmers for years to grow more drought tolerant crops and plant narrower rows to use less water, which some farmers have absorbed. Eventually, he thinks the government might limit the amount of alfalfa and cotton that Mexicali Valley farmers can grow.

According to a recent study, the state of Baja California may need nearly 30% more than it now receives from the Colorado River by 2030 to not be stressed by the water.

Cortez-Lara, the study’s author, said that while cities should reduce their water consumption, getting that much water would result in a significant cut in the amount of alfalfa and cotton grown in the Mexicali Valley. But doing so would come at a huge cost, he said, adding that Mexico’s federal government should play a role in financing and strengthening water efficiency.

In the absence of such action, water managers, experts and farmers like Quintana, who has worked his way out of trouble this year, agree that the shortages will get worse.

“The less water there is,” Quintana said, “the more Mexicali Valley farmers will have to fight.”

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Naishadham reported from Washington, DC

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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