Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

Richard Paisley and Taylor Henshaw: The 1997 UN Watercourses Convention from a North American Perspective

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

The following post by Richard Paisley and Taylor Henshaw is the tenth and final essay in the series related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Messrs. Paisley and Henshaw are with the Global Transboundary International Waters Governance Initiative at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, which Mr. Paisley directs. Mr. Paisley can be reached at: rpaisley [at] internationalwatersgovernance.com.

Introduction

The nations of North America—Canada, Mexico and the United States (USA)—share a significant number of international drainage basins and transboundary aquifers, comprising 16% of the world’s transboundary river basins. The three countries have entered into various bilateral agreements with their neighbors for the management and allocation of their transboundary waters. However, while each voted in favor of the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) when it came before the UN General Assembly, none of them has ratified the instrument. The objective of this essay is to critically consider the absence of these three nations from the roll of the UNWC and to assess whether ratifying and implementing the UNWC would be in the individual and collective best interest of all three countries.

International Freshwater Drainage Basins of North America. Source: UN Watercourses Convention Online Users Guide

Perceptions

The three nations appear to be in no great rush to ratify and implement the UNWC. This may be due to a perception that their international drainage basins are sufficiently managed without the UNWC: long-standing bilateral institutions have been established to deal with various aspects of the conservation and management of international drainage basins in North America.

Prominent among these mechanisms are the International Joint Commission (IJC) between Canada and the USA, and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) between Mexico and the USA. The history and practice of the IJC and the IBWC provide a rich body of work to review that falls beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to mention some of the challenges the two commissions face, such as: managing significant risks to water quality and quantity; the linking of border environments to binational trade and associated agreements; new stresses on public health and national economies; changes due to population growth and industrialization; greater demands on shared resources; increasing emphasis on public and indigenous peoples participation in decision-making; greater value placed on non-traditional water uses, such as “in stream” flows; and the imperative to establish ecosystem and active adaptive management approaches to resource management.

In addition, both institutions have experienced recent changes to their constituencies with the increasing influence of environmentalists and economic, social justice, and sustainable development advocates. As a result, ratification and implementation of the UNWC could help make both the IJC and the IBWC more relevant by increasing the focus on, and energy devoted to, the more sustainable conservation and management of transboundary waters and related resources in all three countries.

Substantive Objections

Whether and the extent to which Canada, Mexico and the USA have substantive objections to the UNWC is not well known. This may be because such objections are masked by the fact that all three countries were among, not just the 103 countries who voted in favor of the UNWC, but also the 38 countries to officially sponsor the UNWC.

On reflection, various substantive reasons may exist to explain why all three countries are not overly anxious to ratify and implement the UNWC. Mexico provides a good example. On the one hand, Mexico probably favors the UNWC, in part, because the Convention provides a basis for cooperating over measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution, including from the USA, which is an issue of great sensitivity to Mexicans. On the other hand, groundwater is tremendously important for Mexico where many believe that the conservation and management of shared transboundary aquifers necessitates a different international legal regime to that presented in the UNWC. More specifically, Mexico could be disinclined to ratify and implement the UNWC until more clarity is provided regarding the relationship between the UNWC and the emerging Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. According to Stephen McCaffrey, such clarity, regrettably, may be a long way off and:

will crucially depend on eliminating both the overlap between the draft and the UN Convention in terms of the physical subject matter they regulate, and the notion of “sovereignty” over shared groundwater, which should have no place in any set of rules governing the use, protection, and management of shared freshwater resources.

Constitutional Politics

At the political level, the ratification and implementation of international treaties has become an increasingly challenging undertaking in all three countries.

In Canada, the negotiation, signing and ratification of international treaties is controlled by the executive branch of the federal government. However, many international treaties, such as the UNWC, deal with matters that fall under the provincial sphere of legislative jurisdiction pursuant to the division of powers in Canada between the federal government, the provincial governments and First Nations (sections 91, 92, 92A and 35 of the Canadian Constitution).  Also, according to Professor Emeritus of Economics and Forestry at the University of British Columbia, Peter Pearse:

A recurrent question in discussions about water management in Canada is “What is the role of the federal government?”  A stranger to these discussions might think, naively, that this is simply a constitutional question.  But even a good constitutional lawyer can not give a crisp answer.  To some extent the question is a political one – “What does the federal government think its role is, at the moment?”  This changes.

As a practical matter this means that ratification and implementation of the UNWC in Canada would likely trigger challenging and hard-nosed fiscal and other negotiations among the federal, provincial and First Nations levels of government. An analogous situation occurred when Canada was asked to ratify and implement the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context.

In the USA, the legal situation regarding international treaties is somewhat different, but possibly even more challenging. Under United States constitutional law, an international “treaty” is an agreement that has received the “advice and consent” of two-thirds of the United States Senate and has been ratified by the President (see here). As a practical matter, given the increasing political polarization within the United States Senate, obtaining the consent of two thirds of Senate members for any multilateral treaty, including the UNWC, would be exceedingly challenging.

Mexico is much closer to Canada constitutionally than to the USA as Mexico constitutionally allocates separate and exclusive spheres of authority to the states/provinces and the federal government. International treaties must conform to the Mexican Constitution in order to be valid. However, many international treaties address topics that in Mexico fall within the exclusive authority of the states/provinces. Seemingly, in practical terms this means that Mexico may need to enact domestic legislation to transform international treaty obligations into enforceable domestic law, which could be both time consuming and expensive.

Champions

Another reason why the UNWC has not yet been ratified and implemented in Canada, Mexico and the USA is the paucity of champions at the political level in all three countries. This resonates with Nicolo Machiavelli’s observation:

there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Justifying the UNWC in North America

Despite the apparent obstacles noted above, there are at least three compelling reasons why Canada, Mexico and the USA should immediately ratify and implement the UNWC. First, ratification and implementation will send a strong and important message to each other, and to the world community, generally, that sovereign states have important rights and responsibilities when it comes to transboundary freshwater resources.

Second, the fact that Canada and the USA are variously both upstream and downstream of each other and that the USA is upstream of Mexico, will particularly and importantly help dispel any lingering misperception that the UNWC may be biased in favour of downstream or upstream states.

Third, Canadian, Mexican and American support for the Convention could not be more timely given how the world community is currently struggling with the harsh realities of climate change and water scarcity.

Ratifying and implementing the UNWC in North America would also demonstrate a wider acceptance of practice under the Convention as representing customary international law. In turn this could place the UNWC higher on various political agendas and could help lead to a more stable framework for transboundary water cooperation globally.

 

Rethinking Transboundary Ground Water Resources Management: A Local Approach along the Mexico-U.S. Border

Monday, May 6th, 2013

The following post is by Gabriel Eckstein, Director of the International Water Law Project, Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University, and Of Counsel with Sullivan & Worcester. He can be reached at gabriel [at] internationalwaterlaw.org. This post is based on a new article by the same title.

The nearly 2,000 mile-long border between Mexico and the United States is hot and dry. Few rivers cross this arid expanse. Yet, despite the lack of visible, life-sustaining water, the region is growing – the combined border population, currently around 14.4 million, is expected to increase 40% by 2020.  The reason for this remarkable growth is ground water, more specifically, transboundary aquifers.  As many as twenty aquifers straddle the Mexico-U.S. border, many of which serve as the primary or sole source of fresh water for the border’s communities and unique ecosystems.

Map produced by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre suggesting the presence of 10 transboundary aquifers or aquifer systems along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Notwithstanding the undeniable importance of the region’s transboundary aquifers, neither Mexico nor the United States seem inclined to pursue a border-wide pact to coordinate management of these critical freshwater resources. While recommendations have been proffered for more than forty years, all appear to have fallen on deaf ears.  As a result, these resources are now being overexploited on both frontiers as populations and industries pump with little regard for sustainability or transboundary consequences.  Moreover, these subsurface reservoirs are being fouled by untreated wastes, agricultural and industrial by-products, and other sources of pollution.  Imminently unsustainable, the situation portends a grim future for the region.

If both federal governments are unwilling to take decisive steps, what else can be done?  Are there alternatives to a formal, comprehensive, border-wide regime that would address the complexity and multitude of issues related to the various transboundary aquifers on the border?

In a recently published article, I advocate for an alternative approach, one that sidesteps the respective federal authorities and places the burden of pursuing cross-border cooperation on the communities that so depend on these critical fresh water resources.  Essentially, I propose that subnational entities at the local and regional level pursue cooperation over transboundary aquifers in the form of informal, locally-specific, cross-border arrangements.

While this tactic challenges the national governments’ traditional monopoly over international relations, especially as they relate to transboundary natural resources, there is good reason to believe that such an approach could achieve what Mexico City and Washington, DC have failed (or declined) to do – create effective collaborative schemes for the mutual and sustainable management of the region’s transboundary aquifers.

Map showing the six Mexican states and four US states, as well as numerous sister cities, along the Mexico-US border. Map courtesy of USEPA: http://www.epa.gov/region9/annualreport/07/images/mexico-us-border.jpg

Under the unique circumstances of the Mexico-U.S. border, informal and quasi-formal arrangements are more likely to create viable cross-border pacts that would be respected by the local communities.  The degree of interest that the national authorities have in a local issue is often directly proportional to the physical distance from the capitol.  In contrast, local decision-makers are typically better informed about local and regional cross-border concerns than federal bureaucrats, especially on issues related to the management of local fresh water resources.  Moreover, local authorities are better able to reflect the values and preferences of those most likely to be affected by a water accord with a neighboring country, which, for a local border community, is merely a short drive away.  Critically, local decision-making would likely be more sustainable, as well as responsive and adaptable to changing climatic and economic circumstances and improved knowledge, given that the local communities and their children will have to live with their decision far into the future.

In addition, a local approach to the management of transboundary aquifers makes hydrologic sense.  No two aquifers are alike; each functions as a complex and unique hydrological system.  Moreover, no two aquifers are perceived equally by overlaying communities, especially where those communities are highly dependent on the resources to meet their daily freshwater needs.  Hence, aquifers traversing the Mexico-U.S. border cannot be managed effectively through a single, comprehensive, border-wide treaty.  While a border-wide scheme may be politically convenient, such an approach could only offer very general guidelines and standards, and may prove detrimental to the sustainable management of some of the region’s subsurface waters.  Rather, an effective, sound, and equitable management plan should be tailored to each transboundary aquifer’s unique characteristics and circumstances.

One concern often raised with a local approach to the management of transboundary natural resources is the legality of such action.  As is true under most nations’ foundational instruments, both the Mexican and the U.S. constitutions recognize the national government as the sole authority empowered to deal with foreign representatives; they prohibit states, cities, and other subnational political units from entering into treaties and other formal relations with counterparts across the border.  The goal here, however, is not to create multiple, locally-specific, formal treaties throughout the border.  Rather, the goal is the development and implementation of informal or quasi-formal, locally-specific, cross-border arrangements that are implemented through cooperative understandings or memorandum of understanding, or more structured contracts for goods or services.  In the United States, while the former would be immune to Constitutional scrutiny due to their unofficial, unenforceable, and non-binding nature, the latter would be immune to the extent that the U.S. Congress has not preempted such activities under its authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Given the state of the economy, domestic and international terrorism, drug wars, and other societal and political challenges, ground water on the Mexico-U.S. border is not a priority of the Mexican and American governments.  Unfortunately, that lack of prioritization is jeopardizing the long-term viability and habitability of the border area and portends the possible downfall of many communities and ecosystems throughout the region.

The two federal governments, though, are not indispensable for developing sustainable and coordinated ground water relations on the border.  Through informal locally-specific, cross-border arrangements, frontier communities can, on their own, achieve viable cross-border pacts that will ensure the water futures of their peoples, economies, and environment.  For a more comprehensive consideration of this proposal, please see my recently published article.

Minute 319: A Creative Approach to Modifying Mexico-U.S. Hydro-Relations Over the Colorado River

Monday, December 10th, 2012

The following post is by Regina M. Buono, an associate attorney with the law firm of McGinnis, Lochridge, & Kilgore L.L.P in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at rbuono [at] mcginnislaw.com or found on Twitter as @ReginaBuono.

The Colorado River provides water to more than 36 million people in the western United States and Mexico.  Management of the river is governed by the Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande, which was signed in 1944 (“1944 Water Treaty”).  While the treaty is generally viewed positively for having served as a basis for successful cooperation for nearly 70 years, efforts to comply with its terms have occasionally been strained.  This was especially evident early last decade when Mexico fell behind in treaty-mandated water deliveries to the Rio Grande as a result of a prolonged regional drought.

In response to ongoing climatic changes and uncertainties, the 1944 Water Treaty was recently amended by Minute 319 to provide for both nations to share surpluses and water shortages, permit Mexico to store some of its allotted water in the United States, facilitate investment in Mexico’s water infrastructure, and restore the environmental flows of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, albeit on an experimental scale.

Minute 319 allows Mexico, which has a dearth of storage capacity, to store some of its Colorado River allotment in Lake Mead, located in Arizona and Nevada.  This arrangement is an extension of Minute 318, which modified the 1944 Water Treaty after an earthquake in the Mexicali Valley in 2010 severely damaged Mexico’s canal-based water distribution system.  In addition to enhancing Mexico’s storage capacity and water security, the deal helps keep the water level in Lake Mead more predictable, which in turn protects the water intake pipes that supply the vast majority of Las Vegas’ drinking water.  Minute 319 also grants the U.S. a one-time allotment of 124,000 acre-feet of water in return for U.S.-financed infrastructure improvements in Mexico.  The infrastructure improvements are intended to generate water savings that will benefit all river users.

In addition, the amendment permits the U.S. to send less water to Mexico in drought years, thereby sharing the burden previously borne solely by U.S. water users.  It allows for the creation of an Intentionally Created Mexican Allocation (“ICMA”), wherein Mexico may adjust its water delivery schedule to allow for later use.  Mexico may adjust its order in dry years to offset the mandated reduction with deliveries from the ICMA or other water previously deferred. In years in which Lake Mead is projected to be at or above certain elevations and in which Mexico has deferred delivery of or created a certain minimum amount of water, Mexico may increase its order for river water in specified increments based on the water elevation. However, the annual delivery of deferred water may not exceed 200,000 acre-feet and total annual delivery may not exceed 1.7 million acre-feet.

Finally, the amendment creates a pilot program to provide water to be used as environmental flows for the Colorado River delta, which will benefit the river and the myriad species that are found there.  The delta has been largely dry for decades; most years the flow of the river is diverted before reaching its mouth at the Upper Gulf of California, leaving the river channel completely dry more than 90 percent of the time and damaging the delta ecology and wetlands that once covered the region.  Minute 319 requires water users in the U.S. and Mexico to provide a one-time high-volume “pulse” flow of 105,000 acre-feet, which will augment base flows secured by a water trust since 2008.  Scientists and advocates hope that the pulse and base flows will create 2,000 acres of new wetland habitat and will lay the groundwork for more extensive restoration projects.

Minute 319 offers a number of benefits for both nations, as well as the water utilities and environmental organizations that depend on and care for the river.  On a practical level, Minute 319 provides water departments, cities, states, and other political subdivisions that rely on the Colorado River for fresh water with the added benefit of certainty and peace of mind, which will allow them to make better business decisions and allocate risk more precisely.  Moreover, investment in Mexico’s infrastructure (e.g., concrete-lined canals instead of the current dirt channels) will benefit water users throughout the basin as a result of greater efficiency and reduced waste, which will allow conserved water to be shared with those entities that helped finance improvements.

Although the amendment has generally been received favorably by water and governmental entities alike, it is not without its critics.  Not everyone shares the opinion that allowing Mexico to store water in the lake is an unqualified good, and some have voiced resentment that domestic water users have not been granted the same flexibility.  The Imperial Irrigation District, a primarily agricultural water district in California and the largest single recipient of Colorado River water, refused to sign the agreement because it wanted to have the same ability as Mexico to bank its water in Lake Mead.  Some parties have expressed concern that keeping more water in Lake Mead means that less water will be available for hydroelectric power generation and, because water levels in the lake serve as a drought indicator, that changes in the lake’s levels due to Mexico’s ability to store water could delay a declaration of drought, in turn postponing necessary distribution reductions.  The Confederación Nacional de Campesinos, Mexico’s national farmers’ association, has also expressed concerns, calling upon farmers to present a “united front” against the agreement, which it believes will harm agricultural producers’ economic interests.

Despite differences of opinion over its impact, the most important aspect of Minute 319 may be the basis it creates for future cooperation as the river is further impacted by overuse, drought, and climate change.  Scientific research and environmental models have demonstrated that the American southwest has been impacted by and will continue to suffer from the effects of climate variability.  It is also an area with a rapidly growing population.  While the region presents a challenge to water and environmental scientists and managers, as well as for society generally, this agreement may serve as an example of creative cooperative management for other countries facing water-related challenges.  Disagreements over water resources are projected to be a leading cause—if not a primary cause—of cross-border social and political conflict in decades to come.  Accordingly, strengthening ties between Mexican and U.S. governmental officials, scientists, and water managers is critical for facilitating future cooperation and minimizing tensions.  The successful completion of this negotiation presents a precedent for cooperation going forward, and the relationships forged in the process will be valuable for future compromises over the management of the Colorado River, as well as other transboundary waters on the border.

Minute 319 is limited to a term of five years.  The short duration may have been necessary to facilitate the amendment’s acceptance by Mexican officials, as Mexico has long considered the 1944 Water Treaty to be inviolable and complained about American management practices.  Nevertheless, officials on both sides have expressed the hope that the Minute’s implementation may be extended in the future.

Lessons Learned: From High Ross to the Columbia

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Jeff Dornbos, an associate at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, provided the following guest post. He recently published an article, “All (Water) Politics Is Local: A Proposal for Resolving Transboundary Water Disputes” in the Fordham Environmental Law Review (here). In this guest post, he discusses how some of the lessons presented in that article apply to the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation. Jeff wishes to thank Laura Rogers-Raleigh for her valuable research assistance.

On April 2, 1984, the United States and Canada entered into a treaty that ended the High Ross Dam controversy, a protracted dispute over a proposal to raise the height of a hydroelectric dam located on the Skagit River in Washington State. Analysis of the dispute resolution processes, and the successful outcome of the treaty, suggest that there are several advantages to organizing transboundary-water-dispute negotiations around hydrologic boundaries rather than political boundaries.

The High Ross dam, a hydroelectric dam that generates power for Seattle, is built on the SkagitRiver, which flows from the Canadian provinceof British Columbia, across the border, and into the state of Washington. The controversy arose when Seattle Light Company developed a proposal to raise the dam in order to meet its growing demand for energy. Following through with the proposal would have generated more electricity for the city of Seattle, but it also would have flooded approximately 5,475 acres of pristine wilderness in British Columbia. Ultimately, after lengthy efforts to resolve the issue, the United States agreed not to raise the height of the dam in exchange for a long-term supply of electricity from Canada, at the price it would have cost to raise the dam.

Resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy was hailed as a success on both sides of the border. President Reagan noted that it was “constructively and ingeniously settled.” Canada’s external affairs minister and the U.S. Secretary of State said it could serve as a model for resolving other transboundary disputes. It was the process, however, not the resolution, that was the most interesting aspect of the dispute. Specifically, the successful negotiations took place between representatives of Seattle and British Columbia, not high-level officials from Ottawa and Washington. According to one negotiator involved in the process, both American and Canadian government officials told local officials to figure it out and then report back when they had a solution. In the end, it was the local negotiators who played the key role in resolving the dispute.

At least two studies of the controversy (an oral history project and a research paper that based its findings largely on interviews) suggest three factors contributed to the success of the negotiations: First, even though it was a transboundary dispute, local negotiators, with local knowledge and a stake in the outcome, played a central role in resolving the dispute. These negotiators were able to balance different interests without getting caught up in other, unrelated, disputes between the two countries. Second, the resolution included the participation of a variety of interest groups. Third, the availability of both scientific and experiential knowledge was useful in achieving a mutually acceptable resolution. As the authors of the Oral History Project stated, “experiential knowledge is not clearly distinct from scientific knowledge – the two inform and influence each other to create a more richly textured public wisdom.” Involving local negotiators helped to ensure availability of sound scientific and experiential knowledge regarding the transboundary water body.

These three lessons are consistent with three fundamental aspects of transboundary water resource management: fostering long-term cooperation, ensuring public participation, and gathering accurate data. Each of these is a focus of well-known water and environmental instruments, including the Berlin Rules, the Rio Declaration, and the Watercourses Convention. Long-term cooperation is necessary to avoid the tragedy of the commons (the prisoner’s dilemma provides another useful analogy). Accurate data gathering is essential for evaluating how the actions of those using the water resources will impact it in both the short and long term. And public participation is justified both as an ends in itself and as a mechanism for better decision making.

The three lessons are also consistent with the “watershed approach” to managing water systems whereby management of water resources is based on the boundaries of the watershed rather than political boundaries. The approach is based on the understanding that political boundaries are not always the best demarcation lines for managing water resources because watersheds often cross jurisdictional and political boundaries, including international frontiers The lessons of the High Ross Dam controversy also mirror very well the EPA’s three guiding principles to the watershed approach: getting those most directly affected by decisions involved in the decision making, focusing on the geographic boundaries of the water body, and basing decisions on strong science and data.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) recognizes that the watershed approach provides a useful framework for managing transboundary water resources. In one report, for example, the IJC highlighted resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy as one of its achievements in fostering transboundary environmental management. In that same report, developed in response to a request from the United States and Canada to provide proposals for how to best assist in meeting the “environmental challenges of the 21st century,” the IJC suggested developing international watershed boards to help resolve transboundary water disputes between the United States and Canada.

The High Ross Dam provides useful lessons for future transboundary water agreements, such as the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty, originally ratified in 1964, resulted from the desire of both the United States and Canada to cooperatively manage the Columbia River in order to control flooding and provide electricity. Pursuant to the treaty, the two countries constructed dams to generate electricity and regulate flooding, which have provided significant benefits to citizens of both nations.

Notwithstanding these benefits, some residents of the basin criticize the treaty, and construction of the dams, for leading to the flooding of fertile farmland, displacement of 2,300 residents, loss of tribal cultural sites, and destruction of wildlife habitats. Specifically, many residents of the basin argue that they were not given sufficient input in the original treaty negotiations. On the Canadian side, for example, dissatisfied residents have established the Columbia Basin Trust. The group’s stated function is to provide “advice on meaningful consultation processes with Basin Residents and local governments on any process to amend, renew or terminate” the Treaty. South of the border, the United States established a Sovereign Review Team that includes representatives from states, tribes, and relevant organizations, tasked with delivering recommendations for the future of the Treaty.

Although local groups are being given the opportunity to provide input on the renegotiation process, the Columbia River Treaty presents at least two opportunities for further involvement from local stakeholders. First, beyond simply getting input from local stakeholders, local negotiators could be empowered to participate in the negotiation process. Second, the treaty could be renegotiated to include the establishment of a watershed board, comprised of local experts and stakeholders from the basin, empowered to negotiate resolutions to disputes. Article XVI of the treaty, for example, could be amended to give this watershed board the ability to assist in settling differences. The board would be established around the geographic boundaries of the basin, tasked with studying the basin, and empowered to help settle differences that arise over time.

Transboundary water resources, by definition, do not fall neatly into political or jurisdictional boundaries. International transboundary water resources are not rare, as demonstrated by a United Nations-supported report, estimating that nearly half of the world’s population lives “in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries.” Developing sophisticated international watershed boards is unlikely to be feasible in many of these transboundary basins. But the lessons from the successful resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy suggest that there are advantages to structuring negotiations over transboundary water disputes around hydrologic boundaries, not just political boundaries. While international disputes may often require some involvement of “high-level” officials, these officials should look to the boundaries of the watershed at issue and involve local stakeholders who are as closely aligned as possible to that watershed. Transboundary water agreements, for example, could include a rebuttable presumption that negotiations over transboundary water disputes begin with identifiable groups organized at the most decentralized hydrological level. Ultimately, including this rebuttable presumption would help to meet the goals of fostering long-term cooperation, promoting public participation, and gathering accurate data, such as were keys to resolving the High Ross Dam controversy.