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Historic Colorado River Agreement Between the United States and Mexico Extended with ‘Minute 323’ to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty

The main agreement governing the Colorado River between the United States and Mexico was extended on September 26, 2017 in Ciudad Juarez. The new agreement—officially titled “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin”—is known as Minute 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty. Minute 323 will serve as nine-year extension and addition to the historic Minute 319 that is set to expire at the end of this year.



Minute 319, signed in November 2012, was the first agreement of its kind between the United States and Mexico that attempted to guide the future management of the Colorado River system. That agreement took a proactive approach in dealing with future water shortages; not only did Minute 319 put a plan in place to deal with those shortages, but it also enacted measures to try and prevent those shortage plans from becoming necessary. Under the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty, Mexico is allotted 1.5 million acre-feet (maf) of Colorado River water, annually. In comparison, the Lower Basin states (Nevada, Arizona, California) are allotted 7.5maf per year. [This is aggregated to 75maf over a ten year period.]

Among other programs, Minute 319 created the Intentionally Created Mexican Allocation (ICMA), which allows Mexico to temporarily reduce its orders of Colorado River water, but then request the balances at some point in the future. This program was a humanitarian effort that allows Mexico to halt its deliveries during times of crisis (such as a recent earthquake that destroyed much of its infrastructure) without entirely forfeiting all of that water.

Additionally, Minute 319 was a landmark agreement in that it was the first treaty of its kind to take into account environmental and ecological concerns. In 2014, Minute 319 allowed for a “pulse flow” of more than 105,000 acre-feet of water to be released. That water allowed the Colorado River to reach its delta in the Gulf of California for the first time in 16 years, and for one of the only times in the last five decades. In addition to the initial pulse, 53,000 additional acre-feet were allowed to flow through from 2013-2017. Those flows restored approximately 1,100 acres of Colorado River Delta ecosystem. Minute 319 was widely regarded as an incredible success, and both countries have been working hard to extend it.

This new agreement was known as “Minute 32x” under the Obama administration, however all parties were not able to come to an agreement before Obama’s term ended in early 2017. Both sides were fearful of its survival, and time was of the essence with Minute 319 set to expire on December 31, 2017. However, partisan politics were put aside and Minute 323 was signed on September 26 in Mexico, and then ceremonially in Santa Fe, NM the next day.

Minute 323 acts as both an extension and expansion of Minute 319. It extends several of Minute 319’s most successful programs including outlining specifics on reductions of water deliveries during a shortage, increases in deliveries during wet years, and allowing Mexico to continue to store water in Lake Mead.


Minute 323

The Lake Mead storage is a benefit for both countries. For Mexico, it lacks the massive storage capacity of U.S. reservoirs, and so the opportunity to store water in Lake Mead allows it to not waste excess water during wet years. For the United States, Mexican storage in Lake Mead helps to boost what are often record low levels, thereby delaying the triggering elevation that would implement the Shortage Sharing Agreement.

If Lake Mead ever reaches a water level of 1,075ft in January, the Shortage Sharing Agreement would kick in, triggering cutbacks across the entire Colorado River Basin. Minute 323 implements the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan that involves Mexico taking its own share of reductions should the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan (part of the Shortage Sharing Agreement) ever be implemented. Under that plan, Mexican reductions would be similar to that of Lower Basin states. As of October 13, the water level in Lake Mead was 1,082.34 feet, or approximately 10.15maf, or approximately 39 percent of its capacity. Thanks to high snowfalls last year, the level is projected to be 1,083.46 feet at the end of 2017, which would have the reservoir operating under Normal or ICS Surplus conditions. However, it is still predicted that there is a one-in-three chance change Mead will hit 1,075 by 2019, thereby triggering the cutbacks discussed above.



United States Pledges $31.5 Million for Water Conservation

One of the main components of Minute 323 is that the United States—both through the federal government and various water districts—has pledged $31.5 million towards water conservation projects in the Mexicali Valley of northern Mexico. These projects will include concrete-lining leaky ditches and canals, improving water pump systems, and using more advanced runoff capture systems that allow water to be reclaimed and restored. In exchange for the financial investment, Mexico has agreed to give the United States a portion of the water that is saved through the increased efficiency. The total proposed infrastructure projects are estimated to conserve more than 200,000 acre-feet of water.

For example, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will contribute an initial investment of $3.75 million in exchange for 27,275 acre-feet of water. If those first projects are a success, the Authority will have the option to contribute an additional $3.75 million in exchange for another 27,275 acre-feet of water.



Extension of Environmental Directives

The final principal section of Minute 323 is the extension of the environmental directives that were an incredible success under Minute 319. Although there is no large pulse flow planned, 210,000 acre-feet of water have been set aside for use as smaller base flows over the next 9 years. The goal with these flows is to restore an additional 4,300 acres of cottonwood, willow, and mesquite habitat in the Colorado River Delta.

Other groups, including environmental nonprofits and various charitable trusts, will combine with the U.S. and Mexican governments to provide an additional $18 million for environmental restoration, research, and monitoring.


Conclusion and Implications

Additional sections of Minute 323 outline programs that will work to reduce salinity levels in the Colorado River, particularly as it reaches Mexico, and allows deferral of Mexican water deliveries in the event of natural disasters. The agreement was worked on by all seven Colorado River Basin States, as well as many key water users, particularly those in California and Arizona. Minute 323 is set to expire on December 31, 2025.

(John Sittler, Paul Noto)