In arid northern Mexico, the Colorado River adds to the insecurity

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 collaborating to examine pressures on the river in 2022.

When Gilbert Quintana, a farmer in the Mexicali Valley, learned he was about to lose 15% of his water supply, he did what he had done before in a pinch: buy water from other producers in northern Mexico.

But Quintana worries that such workarounds won’t always be possible. The water used to irrigate his 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of Brussels sprouts, spring onions and lettuce comes from the flooded Colorado River, which is being quickly drained due to a mega-drought in the American West, partly due to climate change.

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

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

Water experts and scientists say Mexico must find other water at the end of the river for the two northwestern states that depend on it. They say the country also needs to use its supply more efficiently. But Mexico has been slow to act.

“This hit us so quickly that it took us a while to understand that this is not a drought but 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 states of emergency in four northern states in July. About 65% of the country was affected by drought. A swath stretching more than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) from Tijuana to Matamoros is still bone dry, with water shutoffs common in cities and towns and major reservoirs near all-time lows.

Tijuana, the sprawling frontier city of 2 million people, is particularly dependent on Colorado. About 90% of its water comes from the river. Parts of the city baked this summer as faucets ran dry – sometimes due to mismanagement – with local water officials blaming the drought.

“It’s mismanagement combined with drought,” said Mario López Pérez, a consultant at the World Bank who previously worked for Mexico’s national water commission.

To fill the gap, the government has sent water tankers, a common sight in Mexican cities, to neighborhoods without running water. People have also bought water from private vendors.

(Gregory Bull | AP) Adan Vallejo blocks water with mud as he irrigates a cotton field with water from the Colorado River Sunday, August 14, 2022, near Ejido Mezquital, Mexico. When the Colorado River reaches Mexico, only a fraction of its waters are left for the fields of the Mexicali Valley and millions of people in northwestern desert cities.

For more than a decade, officials in Baja California have been talking about building a large desalination plant in a beach town near Tijuana. In 2016, state officials finalized a plan, only to shelve it four years later, citing its high cost. The energy-intensive technology works by removing contaminants from seawater.

Mexico has other, smaller desalination plants in other parts of the state and country.

Roberto Salmón helped oversee US-Mexico border and river agreements as Mexico’s representative at the International Boundary and Water Commission between 2009 and 2020. He said a desalination plant would help Tijuana significantly.

“But since I joined the commission, there have been discussions,” Salmón said, “and there is no facility yet.”

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

Officials and companies have also talked about using treated, recycled wastewater to improve the city’s water supply for years, but the city has little to show for it.

Maria-Elena Giner, the US representative to the IBWC, said the US is reviewing projects that could help Mexico conserve more water in the Colorado River, with about $32 million becoming available in 2017. The money could be used to line leaky sewers, help farmers switch to water-saving drip irrigation and pay others to leave fields unplanted, she said.

But getting Mexico to use significantly less water — and fast — will be difficult.

“We did a lot of the low-hanging fruit,” Giner said. “Our problem at the moment is how we carry out the more difficult projects in Mexico.”

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

(Gregory Bull | AP) Jose Garcia works Sunday, August 14, 2022, near Los Algodones, Mexico, to remove a broken blade on a plow at a farm irrigated with Colorado River water .

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

Since 1944, Mexico has received a little over a third of what California takes from the Colorado River each year. According to Alfonso Cortez-Lara, an environmental professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexicali, over the next year it will lose 7% of that, or more than what the industrial frontier town of Mexicali — population 1 million — consumes in a year researching transboundary water issues .

Nicolás Rodriguez, director of an irrigation district in the Mexicali Valley, said water shortages (this year Mexico lost 5% of its total supply from the river) were beginning to cause tensions between irrigation district managers and farmers.

Farmers in the Mexicali Valley produce an almost identical array of crops – most for US export – to what is grown north of the border in California’s Imperial Valley. Leafy greens, broccoli, alfalfa, and wheat are common. The farms are usually much smaller.

Rodriguez said he has for years encouraged farmers to grow more drought-resistant crops and plant narrower rows to use less water, which some farmers have taken up. Finally, he believes the government could limit how much alfalfa and cotton farmers can grow in the Mexicali Valley.

According to a recent study, the state of Baja California could need nearly 30% more water by 2030 than it gets now from the Colorado River to avoid water shortages.

(Gregory Bull | AP) Low water levels are visible Monday, August 15, 2022 at El Carrizo Reservoir in Tijuana, Mexico. Steep water restrictions are looming for U.S. states that use water from the Colorado River, meaning Mexico could also face further cuts.

Cortez-Lara, the study’s author, said that while cities should reduce their water use, the emergence of so much water would mean that the cultivation of alfalfa and cotton in the Mexicali Valley would have to be significantly reduced. But doing so would come at a huge cost, he said, adding that the Mexican federal government should play a role in funding and enforcing water efficiency.

Without such action, water managers, experts and farmers like Quintana, who bought their way out of trouble this year, agree the shortages will only get worse.

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


Naishadham reported from Washington, DC


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