U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Act

As many of you know, the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in December 2006. It was designed to address the lack of consensus between the two nations on the source and availability of future water supplies along the border specifically focusing on transboundary aquifers. The Act mandates the creation of a scientific program to comprehensively assess the region’s transboundary aquifers, especially those deemed “priority” transboundary aquifers.


While the Act is expected to generate important data and information for a region critically dependent on its ground water, it will likely produce charts and maps of the kind some of us may recall from elementary school – with colorful contours and geologic characteristics that stop at the border. Although useful for American school children (and even that is debatable), they may be worthless for more serious purposes. Despite its title, the Act is a one-sided effort. Although it directs the US Department of the Interior “to develop partnerships with, and receive input from, relevant organizations in Mexico to carry out the program,” according to Economic & Political News on Mexico (Vol. 19, No. 34, 9/10/08 – contact me if you want a copy), the Mexicans may have been caught off guard by passage of this unilateral effort. For example, last April (04/28/08), the Mexico City daily newspaper Milenio Diario asserted that “The US is betting on the underground water supplies along the border with our country, which is one of the regions in the US with the highest population growth … The growing scarcity of water in this region has on more than one occasion created tensions between the two governments.”


Certainly, the Act was adopted under the oversight of a prior administration. But that doesn’t excuse the great need for cooperation between the two nations. For example, while we may know that aquifers underlay the border region, its seems we still are unsure of how many such treasures may be found there. While Stephen Mumme identified eighteen in his work, others suggest as few as eight (e.g., see UNESO/OAS ISARM Report of 2005) and as many as twenty (see EPA’s 2005 Good Neighbor Environmental Board report to the President). IGRAC’s recently released Transboundary Aquifers of the World Map identifies ten.


Of course, this all may be subject to geologic interpretation, but the fact that it hasn’t been fully interpreted (or, at least, comprehensively collected) indicates a lackluster interest by the two governments.


Additionally, overexploitation has become a serious concern in the border area as populations on both sides pump water with little regard for the transboundary impacts or sustainability. Moreover, as communities continue to grow, increasing pollution from untreated sewage, agricultural and industrial byproducts, and other sources threaten the aquifers’ water quality. Now, climate change threatens to exacerbate the droughts that have plagued the region in recent decades and further diminish border-area water resources. Despite it all, a dearth of research and funding has left little known about the full extent and consequences of the exploitation and pollution of the region’s aquifers.


What is truly needed is a comprehensive and cooperative assessment of ground water resources on both sides of the border. To achieve this objective, both nations must become more engaged in the region’s transboundary aquifers. They must cooperate on and coordinate their research efforts, harmonize methodologies, continuously exchange data and study results, and, ultimately, develop a management scheme that takes into account the needs of both nations, the needs of the environment, and the extent of the fresh water resources available. And, in light of climatic variability, they must monitor all of the variables and periodically review and adapt their efforts so as to ensure that the limited water resources are used wisely and efficiently.


With the population along the border expected to balloon to as much as 23 million by 2030, the availability of fresh water in the region must be made a priority. Might the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act serve as a first step in this direction? Certainly a possibility. A second step, though, has yet to appear on the horizon. By itself, the Act is designed to provide only a one-sided glimpse of the needed information, and thus, may be an exercise in futility. Moreover, the fact that the Act is set to expire in 2016, has only received $500,000 of the $50 million authorized, and the current state of the U.S. economy all proffer even less hope that it will produce meaningful information.

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