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“Bob Trumpet’s” Wall: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?

Posted on | May 20, 2016 | No Comments

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Mike Magee

“We are our geography’, as the saying goes. And nothing in current times illustrates this point more dramatically than Donald Trump’s proposed 1000 mile plus wall on our southern border. I won’t dwell on the oft repeated criticisms – the impossible logistics in radically reducing the numbers of 11 million immigrants (when we currently deport a maximum of 400,000 a year); the cost of such deportations pegged at $400 billion over 20 years; the cost of a 40 foot high, 10 foot deep (to avoid tunneling) wall of at least $26 billion, which doesn’t include ongoing maintenance; nor the shear embarrassment of living in a “free country” that chose to embrace such an embarrassing Soviet-style strategy (“Mr. Gorbackev, tear down this wall!”).

No. I will concentrate only on geography, most especially water. You see Mexico and the United States share more than a flow of citizens across our borders. We also share a flow of billions of gallons of water through the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers, and their tributaries. As it turns out, our long standing treaties, which protect the flow, prohibit any kind of construction that would interfere with this flow – like a wall for example.

How this particular water flows, and who controls its use and distribution, has been a highly disputed issue for well over a century. But to the credit of both the U.S. and Mexico, we have managed to make peace, rather than war, over the sharing of this most vital resource. This has been especially noteworthy in recent years, as global warming induced droughts have decreased the flow. In fact, we just recently spent five years (2007 – 2012) successfully negotiating a treaty with Mexico that defines sharing into the future and agrees to the maintenance of dams, canals and water delivery systems derived from these two rivers.

9485Ken Salazar, 2012

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said of the treaty in 2012, that the rivers, “in so many ways, makes us one people, and together we face the risk of reduced supplies in years ahead. More than ever, we are working together in times of drought as well as in times of abundance. We will cooperate to share, store and conserve water as needed.” Quite a different tone than the voice of the current Republican candidate for president, who my 5 year old grand-daughter, Luca, calls “Bob Trumpet”.

Let’s take a quick look at the geography of these two rivers. The Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo del Norte) is nearly 2000 miles long, arising in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, and flowing south through New Mexico, a stone’s throw from Albuquerque, then turning southeast, forming the border between Texas and Mexico, bending hard at Big Bend National Park, and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, in view of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. Along this watery border, you’ll find many other paired towns like Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico. Along the river, there are multiple dams and reservoirs, maintained and regulated by joint agreement, controlling for floods, and scarcity, and supporting vital agricultural needs on both sides of the river. Over four million Americans live and survive thanks to the Rio Grande watershed. The 2012 agreement sweetened the deal for the US, as drought made the prior sharing agreement problematic for our country.

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If the Rio Grande joint stewardship is complex, the Colorado River system is monumental. This near 1500 mile waterway connects the Rockies in north central Colorado to the Gulf of California, or at least used to before drought and increased consumption dried up the last 60 miles of the descent. In 1922, we reached an agreement with seven US states and Mexico on the future allocation of the water. The Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) received roughly 43% of the supply. The Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) was granted 49%. And Mexico was guaranteed 9%. While the allocations dating back to the 1944 treaty were based on a supply of roughly 21 billion cubic meters of water, 18 billion is the current estimate, with year to year variations of 6 billion to 25 billion.

The river’s behavior, and the storage and distribution of its water, and resultant hydroelectricity, involves the management of 20 major dams, including the 1936 Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona, and resultant massive reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Internal water sharing is based on the principle of “useful purposing”, which helps explain why California agricultural fields receive 2/3’s of the supply, while golfing greens in Phoenix, Arizona may go wanting in the future.

The river supplies water to 1 in 8 Americans and  irrigation for approximately 15% of all U.S. crops. But it also is a major supplier of municipal water to 17 million Americans in places like Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Tucson, and Phoenix. As you might imagine, the management of this expensive and scarce resource is a delicate affair domestically, let alone adding Mexico to the mix. At the top of governance is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But add to this separate state agencies, and then countess regional authorities.

All of which is to say that the 2012 agreement, which represented five complex years of negotiation, and at once acknowledged the need for careful management of an increasingly scarce resource, while committing ourselves and Mexico to a shared peaceful future – at least when it comes to water – strikes a wildly different tone then that bugled repeatedly by “Bob Trumpet”. Stated simply, we need to be building more bridges, and fewer walls.

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