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Two Nations One Water Summit looks at possible solutions

EL PASO – A binational summit brought together “water leaders” from New Mexico, other U.S. border states and Mexico to share innovative solutions for managing scarce water resources in the Southwest.

“The water supply is going to be 30 to 40 percent less for the next 100 years,” said Michael Hightower, a researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Water and the Environment.

Willie Ibarra of El Paso Water Utilities leads a tour of the largest inland desalination plant in the world during the Two Nations One Water Summit, which focused on water management on the U.S.-Mexico border. The El Paso plant produces up to 27.5 million gallons of fresh water daily by removing salt from brackish groundwater. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Hightower was among 270 participants at the Two Nations One Water summit, which wrapped up Friday. The three-day gathering included researchers, policymakers and water managers.

Many of the panelists at the summit, hosted by El Paso Water Utilities and the University of Texas at El Paso, focused on the need for better managing water resources in the Southwest border region during an”arid cycle.”

“We’ve lost civilizations in the Southwest during each one of these arid cycles,” Hightower said. “Which one of these civilizations are we going to lose? Is it going to be Phoenix? Is it going to be Las Vegas? Is it going to be El Paso?”

He moderated a panel on desalination and groundwater management on the border that included experts from New Mexico, Texas and Baja California. Desalination is the process of removing salt from sea water or groundwater so it can be used for human consumption or irrigation.

“New Mexico is a little bit luckier. We have some of the largest brackish groundwater resources in the country. We just have to be intelligent about how we use those resources,” Hightower said.

The summit agenda Thursday included a tour of the El Paso Water Utilities desalination plant, the largest such inland plant in the world.

Participants also had the opportunity to visit the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s desalination research facility in Alamogordo on Wednesday. That New Mexico facility provides testing that is critical to developing commercially viable technologies for using brackish water.

NMSU associate professor Dr. Pei Xu gave a presentation about a pilot program to use brackish water from the Mesilla Basin to meet the needs of the growing border population in Sunland Park and Santa Teresa. He said water quality varies in the region.

Water policy along the Southwest border has often been defined by conflict and crisis, but the summit focused on collaboration.

One panel highlighted the historic Minute 323 agreement as a global model for managing shared watersheds. The addendum to the 1944 Water Treaty, which was signed last year by the U.S. and Mexico, commits both countries to address Colorado River water shortages, conservation and storage goals.

It came after years of cross-border negotiations and face-to-face meetings.

“We got together every month. We sat at the table. We ate at the same table. We shared the same beers. We shared the same whiskeys and tequilas,” Carlos de la Parra with the Colegio de la Frontera Norte told the audience during a panel discussion about the agreement.

De la Parra played a role in the negotiations for Mexico and advised the summit participants, “You need to get together more often.”

Others at the binational summit agreed on the need for cooperation to better manage scarce water that crosses the border and state lines.

Otherwise, New Mexico would have its water policy decided by the courts, said UNM professor of meteorology and climatology Gregg Gutzler, who gave a panel discussion titled “Drought and the Rio Grande.”

A dispute between New Mexico and Texas over Rio Grande water has reached the Supreme Court.

“It’s always best for solutions to these water challenges to be worked out among the parties involved, rather than having a decision imposed from the outside,” Gutzler said.