Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos’s current issue includes the article “Valle Imperial/valle de Mexicali, 1910–28: su impacto en la cuenca del río Colorado y la disputa por los usos sociales” by Marco Antonio Samaniego López, which examines the controversial negotiations between Mexico and the United States that led to the major water treaty signed between both countries in 1944 to apportion the waters of the Colorado River, an agreement that still reverberates today. In this blog post, we invited Dr. Casey Walsh to comment on the historical implications of such treaty. An anthropologist by training with a focus on the Mexico-US borderlands, Walsh has extensively published about water issues along the border, and is currently conducting research on how new legislation—the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)—is shaping groundwater use, economy and society in California.

How did the dispute between the United States and Mexico about water from the Colorado river in the early 20th century shaped the future of communities in both sides of the border? How does Samaniego López’s essay contribute to understand that important chapter of borderland history? 

Nation states shape the lives of people living on their borders, and they shape the histories we tell about those lives.  The border that joins and divides the US and Mexico is a clear example of this. Sometimes it is difficult to perceive all the people and things that span the national divide—people, families, crops, technology, environments, animals, resources, money, businesses, etc. The article by Marco Antonio Samaniego helps recover that wider vision of a binational—”transnational” in his words—environment and society in the Imperial Valley of California, and Mexicali in Baja California.

Staring at a wall, or across a canal or river, it is hard to see people living on the other side, and even harder to imagine how we are connected to them. But all along the US-Mexico border the transnational management of water resources in the Rio Bravo and Rio Colorado Basins has shaped the lives of all of us who live here. The major water treaty signed between the two countries in 1944 divided and apportioned the waters of these great rivers, but the international treaty was dependent on prior agreements among states and regions within each country. Shared laws and policies enabled the building of massive public works, irrigated agriculture, industry and urban centers on both sides of the border, connecting the lives of millions of people. Clear and secure water concessions encouraged investment and development that returned high profits during the mid-twentieth century, a golden age of stable and strong economic growth in both the US and Mexico. This cooperative effort has been portrayed as something of a triumph, a successful effort to work beyond the limits of the nation to achieve collective goals.

What are the main challenges that Mexico and the United States confront today regarding the allocation and distribution of water resources along the border?

The story of transnational water regulation and development was one of growth in the 20th century, but in the 21st century this water-driven development has come up against hard environmental limits. The story we are creating now will by necessity be one of de-growth. In our collective zeal we divided up all the water; in fact, we over-allocated it, and now we realize we never had as much water as we thought.  The shared, shining vision of progress on both sides of the border also blinded us to the inevitable degradation of the environment that this development would contribute to. The major reservoirs are slowly running out of water—Lake Mead or the Presa La Boquilla in Chihuahua, for example—and conflicts are evident among those who were promised water last century, and are not receiving it this century. And it is now clear that climate change will make the borderlands hotter and drier, adding to the scarcity of surface water. Groundwater, which continued to fuel economic socioeconomic growth when surface water sources reached their limits in the 1950s, is now severely depleted in many areas of the borderlands.  Exhaustion or regulation of aquifers will result in the same outcome: even more scarcity. The vast human-environmental system that we have built will have to adjust to considerably less water.

How is climate change and decreasing water resources affecting communities along the Mexico-U.S. border and scholarship about this topic?

The story of hydraulic development in the borderlands is not only, or principally, about water. It is about capital, labor, land, technology, commodities, and other dimensions of a transnational political economy that has shaped the lives of people through the formation of communities, families, migrations, settlements, work and leisure. Many of the rural spaces and communities in the borderlands took shape in the early and mid-twentieth century as governments and capital rolled out agrarian policies to support cotton production as studied by Cerutti and Almaraz, and Walsh showed. To some degree the violence and economic struggles witnessed across northern Mexico during the last 20 years can be traced to the collapse of the rural development model built on irrigated cotton, as Aboites has demonstrated. Now, as capital seeks profits in a context of growing water scarcity, there will be different crops, industries, labor demands, residency patterns, migrations, state regulations, and so on. 

The transnational, 20th century history of water in the US-Mexico borderlands offers some insight into possible responses to the challenge of scarcity, but there are fundamental differences as well. Managing abundance is easy; managing scarcity is hard. Given the competitive character of capitalism, the easiest way for businesses to address their water supply problems is by finding new sources, rather than using less, or working together to regulate a shared source.  Cooperating to enact scarcity and degrowth is not as attractive as cooperating to create abundance and growth. Governments may be forced to manage the transition to scarcity by the communities that suffer from the extractivist water-grabbing of capital. At the same time, businesses may recognize their shared predicament and following the example from history, take a leading role in motivating their governments to build and share transnational regulatory infrastructures to manage water. The enactment of groundwater regulation in California (the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) shows some of these dynamics, which are certain to become more widespread throughout the borderlands as climate change reduces precipitation and increases evaporation as scholars such as Dobbin and Lubell argue. As more local, county and state governments regulate and reduce water use, a wider legal and political regime of accumulation will likely take shape. A future history of working across borders to achieve the collective goals of de-growth and a sustainable human-environment system in the borderlands is possible, but we cannot entirely rely on the past to show us the way.

Read Marco Antonio Samaniego López’s article, “Valle Imperial/valle de Mexicali, 1910–28: su impacto en la cuenca del río Colorado y la disputa por los usos sociales” for free online for a limited time.

The article analyzes the intense binational relationship imposed by the geographic conditions of the Colorado River in the distribution of water resources between Mexico and the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. Entrepreneurs, the US and Mexican governments, as well as farmers and engineers, negotiated, disputed, and intertwined their interests as they made decisions about the use and distribution of this river’s water, to such an extent that the controversies and formal agreements still carry weight to this day. The historiography, however, has privileged national and local contexts to explain this process, an approach that ignores the transnational complexity that characterized the dispute over water resources, which had implications for the population settlements and society growth on both sides of the border. This article argues that it is essential to break the dichotomy of national historiographies by adopting a transnational approach to strengthen the centrality of a historical process framed within the scope of international water basins.