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Collaboration needed to keep rivers flowing

I always monitor the level of water in the Rio Grande at the onset of autumn.

It always leaves me feeling melancholy when the river gets shut off in its main basin south of Truth or Consequences this time of season. When I started working on the border, I thought it bizarre to see ATVs and people practicing soccer on the dry riverbed.

In Albuquerque, I have always enjoyed seeing the river flowing all year round, refilling Elephant Butte Dam for the following spring.

Canada geese use the sand bars of the Rio Grande Sept. 24 about a mile and half above the Alameda Bridge in Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

However, looking at the low water flow currently in the Albuquerque Rio Grande region, I was reminded how precious a resource this element is for life to grow.

In the arid Southwest, water is everything, but how much do we take it for granted? Cities such as Albuquerque, El Paso and Juárez continue to grow and attract new industries. I suspect that they will grow even more as people reassess living in large, crowded cities due to the pandemic.

The growing population base in this place with limited water is causing rifts. Per a 1944 treaty, Mexico is obligated to send north to the Rio Grande region approximately 345,000 acre-feet of water from its dams, a debt that needs to be paid by Oct. 24. Over the past few years, Mexico has fallen severely behind on its obligation.

This has put Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in an extremely tight spot between the U.S. and Mexico’s farmers and ranchers. The U.S. is demanding payment on time, while Mexican farmers and ranchers have already rioted, destroying government property in opposition to sending the full amount to the U.S. AMLO is nervous that if he does not comply with the agreement, the U.S. will impose tariffs or threaten to close the border, which would be disruptive to Mexico’s economy. He has a lot of political capital at stake no matter what decision the federal government makes.

Meanwhile, Texas and New Mexico are locked in their yearslong lawsuit over water. Texas claims that New Mexico has been shorting the Lone Star State on the amount of water that it is obligated to send south. Both states have already spent millions in legal fees, money that could have been used elsewhere.

As the urban areas in the Southwest grow and more industry locates on the U.S.-Mexico border, we could see a more general fight between the agricultural and development sectors. Water rights, arguably as precious as gold, could become ever more valuable for those lucky enough to own them.

Working in the industrial recruitment and development industries, my motto has been that “you have to keep infrastructure ahead of development.” The day that you can’t flush your toilet or fill your cup from the sink, development abruptly stops. Water is about as important a part of this infrastructure as anything. Planning for the long term and coordination/cooperation among communities, states and federal governments is critical in order to manage our future. However, different areas have different water management policies that make this difficult.

In the Santa Teresa industrial base, wastewater is not recycled to be used for landscape watering purposes, because water has to be put back in the aquifer for replenishment, and to have constant water flows to the Rio Grande. Directly across the border in San Jeronimo, the developer has extensive plans to reuse wastewater for a variety of purposes. These are two communities separated by a fence, with very different policies.

The New Mexico/West Texas/Chihuahua border region can be a common example of the historical quandary of economic development (growing your community, but oftentimes at the cost of natural resources), or a model for water management. In 2007, the City of El Paso built the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalinization plant, the world’s largest inland plant of its type, which can produce up to 27.5 million gallons of fresh water per day.

The Santa Teresa-San Jeronimo border region sits on top of the Mesilla Bolson, an underground lake, which has a thick layer of brackish water. Cooperation and technology could work hand-in-hand to build another desalinization plant in the region, ensuring a more stable growth in the future. Could one plant supply fresh water to both sides of the border? Maybe, but only if officials cooperate and work on policies that allow this to happen.

Every citizen of the Southwest has to become a good steward of each fresh drop of water that we have. Working together, we can lay out a plan in which the development sector, the agricultural sector, and various levels of government can ensure smart water management in the future.

Meanwhile, pray for rain.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at