In the dry, arid desert of the United States, a streak of intense rain can leave residents, lakes, and cacti happy. And the sound of constant tapping of raindrops on windows in California, Nevada, and Arizona are soothing and welcome.  However, in Mexico City, these same sounds mean more than puddle hopping and umbrellas.  Instead, it means floodwater overwhelming the sewer systems and days of sludge and mud in citizens’ homes.  Naturally one wonders how a city often immersed in fresh water pouring from the sky has a water crisis resulting in a public health and environmental nightmare.  The answer lies within a history of poor decisions regarding infrastructure.

Mexico’s rainy season is intense and demonstrates that water is naturally meant to be a part of the landscape. Mexico City, the country’s capital, currently has one of the largest populations in the world, and its citizens are desperate for water. So how did Mexico City end up in a situation where—despite this abundance of water—people do not have enough water to bathe, cook, and maintain their communities?

When the Spanish conquered what is now Mexico City, it was an island located within Lake Texcoco, and while the Spanish were “enchanted” by the area, the lake environment did not captivate them.  The Spanish developed an engineering project that depleted the lake of its natural source of life, allowing for maximum expansion and development.  In an attempt to sustain this development, government administration began draining underground aquifers and nearby lakes. This practice remains in place today, centuries later, as the city’s population and demand for fresh water grows daily. City administrators also draw from underground aquifers as a means of supplying water to citizens, further exacerbating a lack of access to clean water by areas outside of Mexico City.

Marco Alfredo, president of the Mexican Association of Hydro-Engineers, best describes the present situation created by historical misuse: “Mexico City’s situation is chaotic and absurd.  We could have natural pure water, but for hundreds of years we have been draining it away so we have created an artificial scarcity.” he argues. “This is not an engineering problem: we have the expertise and the experience. It is also not a problem of economics: we have the financial resources to do what needs to be done. It’s a problem of governance.”

What is the Solution?

Most people are not surprised when they hear about violence associated with the drug cartels in Mexico. However, most might be surprised to hear is the “artificial scarcity” of water has taken on a similarly dangerous face, where Mexicans in poor neighborhoods hold water delivery truck drivers at gun point and rely on “dealers selling purified water” on the streets just to get access to safe drinking water.  One truck driver recalls being attacked by a mob of people: “They were desperate and angry, and they blamed me because I had water.”

The lack of access to clean water is not only a public health and safety concern, but it leaves those with unfettered access to clean water wondering how the gap between human rights and governance in Mexico City leaves families so desperate for water that they are willing to hold a delivery man at gunpoint to get it.

The government’s response to the crisis has been wildly insufficient.  However, activists, conservationists, and engineers in Mexico are trying to change the way the country views its naturally wet rainy season.  Historically, engineers have worked to create elaborate methods of depleting underground aquifers and lakes by piping, trapping, and diverting water.  Engineers and conservationists accept that “water has never completely stopped flowing naturally to where it historically belongs,” and they believe that the dreaded rainfall filling the streets with water could be a solution to Mexico’s crisis.  Valle de Chalco, once a large lake, is located within Mexico City’s watershed. About thirty years ago, the government tapped into and drained nearby aquifers resulting in ground sink.  As rain naturally fell in the area, the Valle de Chalco hole eventually filled with water, replenishing the once large lake.

Activist Elena Burns with the Water for People, Water for Life campaign, argues the Valle de Chalco lake “should be the heart of the solution,” and by making the lake an additional eight meters deep, “we’d have enough water for 1.5 million people.”  Burns, along with environmentalists, conservationists, scientists, and government officials in charge of dealing with the Mexican water crisis, see the value in naturally collecting rainwater in basins like Valle de Chalco. They argue that collecting rainwater in these types of basins can be done for minimal costs, offering long-term sustainability and turning the problem of rainwater and flooding into a solution for the city’s thirsty citizens.

In addition to the frustrations of activists and environmentalists, citizens are tired of waiting for the government to take action and have begun confronting the water crisis head on.  Like some water-conscious Americans, Mexican citizens are looking to water harvesting as a sustainable solution. Many businesses in Mexico have installed catchment systems that collect and filter rainwater. Hayley Hathaway is the director of Casa de Los Amigos, a business that uses a catchment system. She recognizes that the benefit of these systems is not only that they provide citizens with access to clean water, but also that they ease some of the strain on the city’s infrastructure when it floods: “when it rains, it’s just disastrous in the city, with flooding everywhere.  So if everyone had their own rainwater system, it would solve a pretty big chunk of that problem.”  In other words, if families had the means to collect rainfall before it had the chance to accumulate, it could solve two separate water issues at once: flood prevention and drinking water.


Ramon Aguirre Diaz, the director of Mexico City Water Department argues that in reality  water harvesting is not likely to be successful in Mexico because the cost of implementing such infrastructure is not “financially viable.”  But that viewpoint comes as no surprise to the activists and environmentalists that have long recognized the Mexican government’s deep commitment to large, costly projects rather than small, sustainable changes.  Thus, they have turned their attention to grassroots movements and local citizens to institute change little by little, providing access to rainwater harvesting equipment for individual households.  Although change at the municipal level appears to be nearly impossible, the thirsty citizens are motivated and eager to implement changes to help sustain their own families, leaving activists hopeful for the future.  After all, the Aztecs did not build Teotihuacan pyramids in a day.

Lauren Collins

Image: A tormenta (storm) in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Flickr user Rick González, Creative Commons.


Jennifer Collins, Going local to solve Mexico City’s water crisis, DEUTSCHE WELLE, (Oct. 20, 2015), .

Jonathan Watts, Mexico City’s water crisis – from source to sewer, THE GUARDIAN, (Nov. 12, 2015), .

Kathryn Dickason, Stanford historian unearths greed-drenched origins of Mexico’s groundwater crisis, STANFORD NEWS, (Oct. 17, 2014), .

Marianne Goodland, Could this be the year for rain-water barrels in Colorado?, THE COLORADO INDEPENDENT, (Mar. 8, 2016),

Ioan Grillo, Dry taps in Mexico City: A water crisis gets worse, TIME MAGAZINE, (Apr. 11, 2009),,8599,1890623,00.html?artId=1890623?contType=article?chn=world.


The Colorado River provides water to meet the needs of nearly 40 million people across seven US states and part of Mexico. Historically, the Colorado River ran 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California in Mexico. However, within the last century the river has begun drying up just short of its Mexican delta. Before this change, the delta was a vast and diverse ecosystem that sustained over 300 species of birds, and provided lush spawning grounds for many species of fish. Today, the delta looks more like a desert.

The change came in 1944 when the US and Mexico signed a treaty titled “Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.” The treaty allocated 90% of the Colorado River’s water to the US, and limited the amount of water the US was obligated to pass on to Mexico to 1.5 million acre-feet per year, not to exceed 1.7 million acre-feet per year.

This treaty allowed US citizens to use the Colorado River to establish large cities in otherwise desert climates by extracting drinking and irrigation water. Vast consumption of the river’s water slowly reduced the availability of water in Mexico for the same purposes. Eventually, the two countries grew to consume enough water from the river to keep it from reaching its natural termination.

Minute 319

On November 20, 2012, the US and Mexico signed “Minute 319,” an amendment to the 1944 treaty designed to address multiple issues on an experimental basis over the next five years.  Minute 319 established a method by which the US and Mexico will share in the benefits of high water flow and the burdens of drought in the Colorado River. Mexico gained the right to defer some of its water delivery during times of surplus by temporarily storing water in Lake Mead. In proportion to Lake Mead’s water level, Mexico may then order the previously deferred water, up to 200,000 acre-feet per year, to make up for reductions in base flow during droughts. Reductions in base flow due to drought are also determined in proportion to Lake Mead’s water level, and return of Mexico’s stored water will be refused when the water level of Lake Mead is below 1,075 feet. These provisions will help increase water use efficiency and the reliability of Lake Mead’s water level.

Also outlined in Minute 319 is a pilot program addressing the issue of ecological restoration in the Colorado River delta. For the program, the US agreed to give Mexico $21 million to be used for construction on Mexican water infrastructure to improve efficiency, to develop programs to enrich the ecology of the delta, and to fund half of the supply of a new pulse flow and base flow in the river. As consideration for the $21 million, Mexico agreed to transfer ownership of 124,000 acre-feet of its deferred water to the US before 2018. The pulse and additional base flow are aimed at increasing water delivery to the delta by 2014. The pulse flow will consist of a single delivery of roughly 100,000 acre-feet of water, followed by 50,000 acre-feet per year of additional base flow. A report about the effects of the additional flows on the delta will be published by 2018. Both governments hope to see hydrological and biological restoration in the delta as a consequence of this pilot program.

Finally, Minute 319 implemented a 50-acre environmental restoration project just south of the US-Mexico border on the Colorado River. Several other proposed projects in environmental restoration, water conservation, and establishing new water sources were listed as potential future endeavors.


Though many view Minute 319 favorably—as headway for fairness in water use and environmental protection—some groups have spoken out against the agreement. Mexico’s National Farmer’s Confederation has united in opposing Minute 319, arguing that the transfer of 124,000 acre-feet of water for $21 million is not in their interest. The organization claims that farmers along the Colorado River in Mexico will not be able to meet the water needs of their crops as a result of the reduction in available water.

Additionally, the California-based Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”), the organization with the largest allotment of Colorado River water in the US, has raised some concern about the distribution of the 124,000 acre-feet of water that will be transferred to the US from Mexico. Currently, the additional water is to be split among Arizona, Nevada, and California, with the entire Californian share going to the California Metropolitan Water District (“CMWD”). IID argues that the CMWD does not have a right to the entire Californian share, and that the water should be split between them. Negotiations over allotment of the extra water have not taken place between the two organizations. IID has expressed interest in the past about storing its own water in Lake Mead to help meet water needs, but it has never been allowed to do so. In light of the additional water to be stored in Lake Mead by Mexico, IID and others have also expressed some concern about decreased production of hydroelectric power and less reliable indication of drought conditions based on Lake Mead’s water level.


There are still details that need to be worked out in implementation, but the overall message of Minute 319 is that the US and Mexico are working together towards restoring the hydrology and biology of the Colorado River Delta. The desert-like landscape that once was a lush and vibrant ecosystem may one day return to something resembling its natural state. Minute 319 is but the first step towards significant environmental restoration



Denver, Colorado       April 12, 2013

International Water Law: The United States and Mexico

The second panel discussion of the Symposium focused on the international legal regime governing the allocation of Colorado River water between the United States and Mexico.  Specifically, the panelists focused on the 1944 Mexican-American Treaty (“1944 Treaty”) and the recently enacted Minute 319 to the 1944 Treaty.

The first panelist was Edward Drusina, the United States Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).  The IBWC is the intergovernmental agency charged, under the 1944 Treaty, with application of all the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico.  The IBWC also settles differences in the application of those treaties.  Most importantly, the 1944 Treaty charged the IBWC with administering the rights and obligations of the United States and Mexico regarding the waters of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande.

The Commissioner began by giving a brief overview of the 1944 Treaty, the IBWC, its mission and history. He then gave a narrative overview of the joint cooperative process that culminated in the historic Minute 319, beginning with the 2007 joint statement by the Secretary of the Interior and the Mexican Ambassador.  This joint statement asked the IBWC to begin working towards solutions to the growing problems between Mexico and the United States regarding the boundary waters of the Colorado River Basin.

Minute 317 to the 1944 Treaty, signed in 2010, was the first major cooperative agreement following the 2007 joint statement.  Minute 317 set the framework for the subsequent bilateral talks on the Colorado River Basin by formalizing international workgroups and noting topics for further study.

Unfortunately, the 2010 earthquake in the Mexicali Valley destroyed large sections of the water diversion infrastructure in the Valley and the surrounding area.  Without emergency action on both sides, large amounts of Mexico’s Colorado River allotment would have been lost. The parties reached an innovative and unprecedented solution allowing Mexico to store almost 230,000 acre-feet of its total 1.5 million acre-feet allotment in the United States’ reservoir system.  This allowed Mexico to postpone its Colorado River water deliveries until those responsible could repair the damage from the earthquake.

In order to give Mexico sufficient time to complete repairs, the United States and Mexico entered two years of intense negotiations in order to solidify the arrangement set out in Minute 318 and to begin to deal with other issues facing the Colorado River Basin.  However, because of the nature of the water storage arrangement, Commissioner Drusina and his Mexican counterpart opted for only a five-year extension to Minute 318 in order to make sure the arrangement would work in everyone’s best interest.  Minute 319, signed in 2012, codified this extension to the Minute 318 storage arrangement and included several other provisions dealing with shortage sharing, surplus sharing, salinity concerns, water allocations for environmental programs, and a call for a twenty-one-million dollar investment in Mexico over the five-year cycle of Minute 319.

Following Commissioner Drusina was Karen Kwon, the Colorado Assistant Attorney General.  Kwon gave an overview of the states’ roles in the international management of the Colorado River Basin and ways individual states have an impact on the diplomatic process.  Most importantly, the Colorado River Basin States (“Basin States”) have responsibilities under the 1944 Treaty to help keep the United States in compliance with its obligations to Mexico.  Also, the Basin States have played a major role in furthering coordinated management of the basin.  For example, during the negotiations over Minute 319, the Basin State representatives made sure that the lower basin states did not benefit at the expense of the upper basin states, and vice versa.

The final panelist, Peter Culp, first gave a brief description of how Mexican water rights holders utilize Colorado River water.  The vast majority of Mexico’s allotment of Colorado River water goes to agricultural uses, with the rest diverted mainly for use by municipalities.  According to Culp, nearly three-million people rely on this water supply.  Because the Mexicali region lies downstream from every American farm and municipality in the Basin, salinity and other chemical imbalances are a major problem for water users in northern Mexico.  Minute 319 begins to address this problem.

Culp then laid out the environmental implications of Minute 319 for the Colorado River delta ecosystem.  The delta, at the mouth of the river leading to the Sea of Cortez, plays a vital role in maintaining the health of both the river and its attendant fish and bird species.  Since the turn of the last century, however, the delta shrank dramatically to the point where the delta ecosystem had been declared effectively dead by the 1970s.  A large flood in the early 1980s actually reversed some of the degradation, which in turn spurred efforts to restore the delta.  Though some have made the assertion, Culp was quick to point out that the proponents of these efforts are not attempting to restore the delta to its historic maximum.  Instead, these efforts, which Minute 319 funds in part, will restore only a relatively small, perennial riparian ecosystem within the limits of the historic delta.  In addition to funding restoration efforts, Minute 319 storage arrangements between the United States and Mexico will allow Mexico to store and release water in a manner that will best facilitate restoration of the delta.