If you’ve ever been to the U.S.- Mexico border near San Luis, Sonora, any road map will lead you to the place where the iconic Colorado River is supposed to cross from the United States into Mexico. Upon arrival, however, the first thing you will notice – other than the imposing new border fence – is that that there is, in fact, no river. As a result of the massive upstream dams and diversions that now fully utilize the entire annual flow of the Colorado River, the river is now just a dry channel through most of Mexico. In fact, aside from the occasional flood, the Colorado River has not actually flowed to its historic delta with the sea since the 1960s. A dedicated group of advocates, policymakers, scientists, and attorneys from both countries, including Squire Sanders’ own Peter Culp (Phoenix), have been working hard to fix that, and that work is beginning to pay off.

Colorado River Runs Dry

Site where the Colorado River runs dry 2 miles below Morelos Dam.

On November 20, 2012, Minute 319 to the Mexican Water Treaty was signed by the U.S. and Mexican representatives to the International Boundary and Water Commission (“IBWC”), Commissioners Edward Drusina (U.S.) and Roberto F. Salmon Castelo (Mexico). The agreement represents an effort to move past a long history of water-related conflict between the two nations in favor of a unique, cooperative partnership for the management of water resources that involves not only the federal governments of the U.S. and Mexico, but also state governments, water agencies, and non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”).

Minute 319 expands upon key provisions of the 1944 treaty between the two countries that governs the management of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. It addresses a series of issues related to the management of growing water scarcity on the Colorado River, including the establishment of controls on water deliveries during times of drought, the international sharing of reservoir storage, a water exchange program to facilitate investment in water infrastructure, and series of joint projects to promote partnerships among federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs. Perhaps most significantly, the agreement includes the first-ever bi-national cooperative program to provide water to the Colorado River Delta ecosystem.  The new agreement will return significant amounts of water to the Delta as part of a broad experimental delivery program, and will also expand restoration efforts along the river’s banks that are rebuilding key sites in the Delta for purposes of recreation and wildlife conservation.

Peter Culp, an expert in water rights and water policy based in Squire Sanders’ Phoenix office, has played a significant role throughout the 5-year bi-national negotiations and as part of the more than 13-year effort to restore the Delta, representing the Nature Conservancy, the Sonoran Institute, and other NGO interests, and working closely with key stakeholders in both the U.S. and Mexico. The environmental benefits to the Colorado River Delta that will result from the agreement were recently covered by the New York Times.