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Mexico – U.S. deal a hopeful sign for the Colorado River

This icy trickle of water in North Tenmile Creek has a better chance of making it to the Gulf of California, thanks to a new agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on Colorado River flows.

Temporary treaty amendment includes innovative water banking

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A landmark  water agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on Colorado River flows is winning acclaim as a true win-win — a rarity in an era of perpetual water shortages and rising concerns over allocation of the Southwest’s great river.

But even though the deal is getting good reviews, it’s important to remember that the Colorado River is not healthy.

Massive diversions and storage projects have choked off native flows that helped maintain riparian habitat. Those same projects have pushed four native fish species to the brink of extinction. The agreement will help resolve some long-standing issues in the lower Colorado Basin, but doesn’t do anything to alleviate the extreme pressure on the river’s upper reaches.

The deal, signed this week in San Diego, amends an existing treaty for five years and focuses on international cooperation to enhance water infrastructure. It enables Mexico to store part of its allotment in Lake Mead and may also enable some modest restoration of the Colorado River delta.

The agreement has implications all the way upstream to the Colorado River headwaters in Summit County. Colorado water managers said the agreement shows that both countries recognized that managing growing demands for the river’s water requires creativity and flexibility.

Under the five-year agreement, Mexico will accept voluntary shortages when Lake Mead reaches certain levels, while gaining opportunities to receive surplus water under certain conditions.

The agreement, known in treaty parlance as “Minute 319,” also includes a water conservation demonstration project, salinity management language, potential opportunities for Mexico to release its storage for environmental flows in Mexico and the opportunity for Mexico to store some of its treaty allocation for delivery in subsequent years.

Jennifer Gimbel, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, called the agreement “monumental” and said it’s important to Colorado for furthering the state’s ability to work collaboratively with the entire river basin – including Mexico – “to use our water resources in an equitable and appropriate manner pursuant to the Law of the River.”

“It is important because the agreement recognizes the finite resources of the Colorado River but it is monumental because it allows both countries, along with the states and other entities in both countries to work together and use infrastructure  to allow the finite resources to be shared during surplus conditions and reduced in times of shortages,” Gimbel said.

Sen. Mark Udall claims the deal will keep the river strong from its headwaters to the Gulf of California — despite the fact that the Colorado River is already near its deathbed just a few miles downstream of its source because of massive diversions to the Front Range.

“The agreement, and process that led to it, could form the basis for future plans to address the extraordinary water challenges we face in the basin,” Udall said. “It demonstrates that we can improve management of the river and enhance environmental conditions while protecting Colorado’s allocation under the Colorado River Compact.”

The agreement creates Minute #319 to the 1944 water treaty between the United States and Mexico. The agreement gives Mexico greater flexibility over the storage and delivery of its annual Colorado River allotment. At the same time, it allows the United States to invest in Mexican water infrastructure and reclaim some of the water such projects would save.

“This agreement between the U.S. and Mexico will result in more water in Lake Mead, perhaps up to a 15 foot increase in the water level. This is great news for people who recreate on Lake Mead and the businesses like mine who serve them,” said Izzy Collette, Owner of Desert Adventures, who operates guided kayaking tours on Lake Mead. “But the most important impact of this agreement is the precedent it sets. By implementing a flexible management policy and improving water conservation, the agreement manages to simultaneously improve habitat restoration for the river in Mexico and Arizona, while improving water availability for users in both countries.”

In recent years the 1450-mile Colorado River has become depleted along most every stretch of its journey and over the last decade has run dry in the Sonoran Desert miles before it reaches the sea.  The over-tasked Colorado River now supplies water to more than 36 million people in seven U.S. Colorado River basin states and two Mexican states.  Before it enters Mexico, most of the river is stored or diverted for municipalities, energy production or agriculture. Only a trickle of the river’s water ever makes it to the Gulf of California.

“As the owner of a birding company that provides guided birding trips for clients in southern Arizona, my business depends on healthy ecosystems and a healthy river system extending all the way to the Colorado River delta in Mexico,” said John Yerger, Owner of Tucson-based Adventure Birding Company. “This smart approach to managing the river will benefit the recreation industry that would not exist without the Colorado River and its tributaries. The river and the economic value it provides our state and the West is undeniable and it’s imperative that we do all we can to protect this resource.”

Recreation on the river is estimated to generate $26 billion in economic output annuallyand supports a quarter million American jobs in the Colorado River basin.  The economic value it provides for Arizona is immense, where the direct spending tied to river recreation equals $3.79 billion every year.  Additionally, 53,508 Arizona jobs are directly dependent on Colorado River recreation.

“This landmark measure shows that we do not have to choose between using the Colorado River’s water and maintaining the life of the river itself,’” said Molly Mugglestone, Project Coordinator for business coalition Protect the Flows. “We must continue to implement this smart approach to river policy to protect the Colorado River recreation industry that generates $26 billion in economic output annually and supports a quarter million American jobs. We now encourage Secretary Salazar to focus on how we can designate healthy river flows in other strained stretches of the Colorado River system throughout the Southwest U.S.”

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