Archive for January, 2018

Mexico-U.S. Cooperation on the Colorado: Prioritizing Sustainability Under Minute 323

Monday, January 15th, 2018

The following essay is by Regina M. Buono and Jill Baggerman. Buono is a Non-resident Scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a doctoral student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at regina.buono [at] Baggerman is a fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the J.J. “Jake” Pickle Scholarship Program and is a graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at kjmbaggerman [at]


Despite oft-seen headlines about “the wall,” immigration, and uncomfortable relations between the United States and Mexico, the countries continue to develop advanced cooperative strategies for governance and management of the Colorado River. On September 27, 2017, representatives from the U.S. and Mexico signed Minute 323, a new agreement under the 1944 Treaty governing the river, which is intended to create a more secure water future for Colorado River water users and support additional environmental restoration projects. The agreement is the product of longstanding collaborative efforts by environmental NGOs, water agencies, and governmental representatives from both countries and is designed as a successor to Minute 319, signed in 2012. Minute 319 created temporary measures to share shortages and surpluses between the parties, and provided a massive, experimental pulse flow to rejuvenate the Colorado Delta. (See here and here).

In a nutshell, Minute 323 authorizes mutually advantageous options to give the parties flexibility and facilitate longer-term planning of water storage and distribution under variable climate conditions. It provides for substantial investment in conservation projects in Mexico in exchange for additional water allocations to the U.S.  Some of the more prominent stratagems of the plan are described below.

Minute 323 delineates procedures for coordinating approaches to operating under specified tiers of high- and low-elevation reservoir conditions, allowing the parties to take advantage of wet times and avoid triggering shortages in dryer periods. This increases certainty for each nation in managing water demands, and provides for agreement on the provenance and communication of information regarding environmental conditions. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s August 24-Month Study will be used to project the January 1 elevation of Lake Mead, thereby determining yearly basin-wide allotments. The agreement also establishes the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in which Mexico agrees to join the U.S. states in temporarily taking less water from Lake Mead in order to avoid future shortages. Implementation of the plan is contingent on completion of the drought contingency plan being developed by the lower basin states.

Building on the successes of Minute 319, Minute 323 also enhances Mexico’s ability to store its allotments in U.S. reservoirs according to three categories of reserves: “Emergency Storage,” a “Revolving Account,” and the Intentionally Created Mexican Allocation (ICMA). The agreement extends Mexico’s ability to defer any part of its water delivery when the act of responding to an emergency—such as an earthquake—limits its ability to use an allotment. The Emergency Storage, along with the Revolving Account (which includes water previously deferred under Minutes 318 and 319) and ICMA (water Mexico may defer based on conservation efficiencies or new water sources that decrease demand for Colorado River water), constitutes “Mexico’s Water Reserve.”

International Boundary and Water Commission Commissioners announce signing of a new Colorado River agreement, Minute 323 on September 27, 2017. Photo by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, available at, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Commissioners Roberto Salmon (left) and Edward Drusina of the Mexico-U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission Commissioners announce signing of a new Colorado River agreement, Minute 323 on September 27, 2017. Photo by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license (

Minute 323 provides a number of rules to structure and facilitate sustainable management of these reserves, including limitation on total annual deliveries and provisions for evaporation losses. Reserves are to be delivered when needed unless Lake Mead is at low-elevation conditions or the timing would affect the January 1 elevation projection. Mexico may use its reserves for any purpose; may create a reserve of up to 250,000 acre-feet (AF) through December 31, 2026; and may withdraw up to 200,000 AF annually. Of water stored as ICMA, 2% is reserved for environmental purposes in Mexico. Minute 323 defines precise institutional procedures for when and how relevant agencies will manage the accounting records and release water deliveries. Storage and release procedures are based on the projected elevation of Lake Mead, meaning that environmental conditions and a recognized need for accurate evaluation and understanding of those conditions remain at the forefront of the agreement.

Minute 323 addresses a number of other issues benefiting both nations but of particular concern to Mexico. The agreement lists tasks for the Binational Salinity Work Group to achieve over the next two years, including the modernization of salinity monitoring equipment and automatic reporting tools. The agreement also addresses Mexico’s concerns about daily flow variabilities by creating the Binational Flow Variability Work Group, tasked with a pilot program to use existing storage capacity at Morelos Dam to reduce variability.

U.S. water agencies pledged to invest $31.5M in water efficiency projects in Mexico in exchange for an additional 109,100 AF in water allotments. Water savings generated by these projects will accrue to Mexico, except for allotments exchanged to the U.S. and specified allotments for the environment and system water. The water transferred to the U.S. will reduce pressure on the lower basin U.S. states as they attempt to meet increasing water demands. As with Mexico’s Water Reserve, the agreement coordinates institutional procedures for how the parties will conduct the exchange proportionally and simultaneously through 2026.

Seeking to leverage the success of Minute 319’s “pulse-flow”, Minute 323 includes provisions for the environment, particularly the river delta. The parties renewed their commitment to the environment by agreeing to partner with a binational coalition of NGOs to generate 210,000 AF of water for environmental purposes in Mexico, and pledging millions of dollars to fund scientific research, monitoring, and restoration projects. Mexico will also provide water for continued habitat restoration and scientific monitoring in the delta through 2026.

In sum, Minute 323 is an encouraging development for management of the river. The agreement provides Mexico and the U.S. with additional procedures and resources required to meet environmental and user demands for Colorado River water. Mexico benefits from increased flexibility regarding management of its reserves, as well as improved rules on flow variability and funds for conservation projects. The lower basin states also substantially benefit from the water transfers, which will lessen demand pressure throughout the system. The formal involvement of NGOs at the negotiating table increases the institutional capacity of both nations, creating incentives and synergies to facilitate conservation projects. The agreement is an indication that relations over the Colorado River continue to be strong and cooperative, are supported by well-developed institutions and active stakeholder participation, and increasingly focus on environmental sustainability and mutually advantageous solutions. Minute 323 advances each of these objectives, demonstrating that both nations continue to negotiate in good faith, even while the broader relationship becomes strained.