Groups Request Amendment to U.S. - Mexico River Treaty to Allocate Water for Wildlife

(11/23/1999) - A coalition of more than thirty-five national, international, and local conservation groups representing more than eight million people from Mexico and the United States today sent a letter to their governments calling for an amendment to the 1944 water utilization treaty between the U.S. and Mexico. The proposed amendment would allocate water for conservation of the Colorado River Delta and northern Gulf of California.

“The Colorado River Delta ecosystem is today left only with table scraps of water," said David Hogan, Rivers Program Coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. “With all the proposals for increasing use of the river, the time is now to set a place at the feast for the delta ecosystem."

The groups contend that the lower Colorado River is an ecosystem under great stress. The Hoover and other dams store the bulk of the river water and divert it to agribusinesses and sprawling sun-belt cities, leaving little water for wildlife. In accordance with the 1944 treaty, the relatively small amount of water which reaches the U.S. / Mexico border is diverted in its entirety by Mexico to its agribusinesses. Since the early 1960s, the river has reached the Gulf of California only when flows have exceeded storage capacity at Hoover Dam and are deliberately spilled by the Bureau of Reclamation. Forests, shrimp, and shore bird populations, among others, exhibit dramatic healthy change when this water is spilled into the ecosystem.

“The restoration of water flows to the Salton Sea, the Colorado River Delta, and the wetlands in the region will actively restore all of these natural sites and we are hopeful that Mexico will have both the biological and technical information support to formally request that the United States government keep the allocation permanent," said Carlos Yruretagoyena, a board member of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA).

Today the flood plain of the Mexican portion of the delta supports 3657 acres of native cottonwood and willow riparian habitat. In contrast, the U.S. stretch of the lower Colorado River supports only 247 acres. The Cienega de Santa Clara now covers an enormous 50,037 acres of the eastern delta. These expansive delta forests and marshlands and the marine habitats of the upper Gulf support nearby fishing and farming communities, as well as important populations of endangered species including the desert pupfish, Yuma clapper rail, southwestern willow flycatcher, totoaba (a large marine fish) and vaquita (a critically endangered porpoise). The area is also a major migration corridor for songbirds and an important stopover for waterfowl along the Pacific flyway.

The groups believe the spilled water that serves to support this ecosystem is currently treated as wasted water by U.S. state water and power agencies. These agencies have devised plans to use this “wasted" water for things such as off-stream storage, designation of surplus criteria, water transfers, and operation of the Yuma Desalting Plant.

“State water and power interests dominating the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Plan have also rejected allocating water for conservation of the delta, thereby undermining lofty promises of the plan and ensuring desiccation of the delta under the pretext of ecosystem management within the U.S.," said Bill Snape, Defenders of Wildlife Legal Director. “National boundaries should not be an excuse to ignore legitimate instream flow rights of the entire lower Colorado basin. Bi-national cooperators possess an historic opportunity to restore the region's bloodline."

The groups have called on the governments of Mexico and the U.S. to craft, with public input, a new minute to the 1944 treaty specifically allocating water for cross border, in-stream, and perennial Colorado River flows for conservation of the delta and Cienega de Santa Clara. A Letter of Intent signed in 1997 by Mexican Secretary Julia Carabias and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could become the basis for an ecological amendment or minute to the treaty of 1944, according to the coalition.

Recent studies suggest that to support existing riverside forests, 96,400 acre-feet of flood water and base flows must flow into the region each year. In addition 132,000 acre-feet of water per year is necessary to maintain the Cienega. Arizona, California, and Nevada currently use more than 7.5 million acre-feet of water, while Mexico uses 1.5 million acre-feet. The addition of a conservation amendment to the treaty would reduce water deliveries to both nations proportional to existing withdrawals.

“It is time to start thinking of the Colorado River water as a “BMW" car rather than the “Pinto" that we are using now," said Ernesto Reynoso, Director of the Centro Regional Estudios Ambientaley Socioeconomics (CREAS). “But first we have to turn our eyes to the border and finish with the old selfish ways of the water use between U.S. and Mexico, which takes us away from sustainability."

Legal precedent for conservation of the delta already exists. Mexico and the U.S. have a significant history of cooperation in the conservation of shared natural resources, including water, vegetation, and wildlife. Past cooperative efforts include at least 15 different resource conservation agreements between the two nations. Both the U.S. and Mexico have also passed their own laws for wildlife conservation. The U.S. Endangered Species Act mandates species protection by U.S. agencies irrespective of international boundaries.

The groups that have signed on to the letters include: American Humane Association, American Rivers, Amigos Bravos, Animal Protection Institute, Asociacion Ecologica de Usuarios del Rio Hardy-Colorado (AEURHYC), Audubon Council of Utah, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Border Ecology Project, Bosques de las Californias, A.C., Bradshaw Mountain Wildlife Association, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Connections, Centro de Derecho Ambiental e Integración Económica del Sur A.C, (DASSUR), Centro de Estudios de los Oceanos y Desiertos (CEDO), Centro Regional de Estudios Ambientales y Socioecónomicas (CREAS), Defenders of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Earth Island Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of Pronatura, Forest Guardians, Fund for Animals, Glen Canyon Institute, Great Salt Lake Audubon, The Humane Society of the United States, In Defense of Animals, International Rivers Network, International Sonoran Desert Alliance, ITESM - Campus Guaymas, National Audubon Society, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Pacific Institute, Pro Esturos, Pronatura Sonora, Sierra Club, Sonoran Institute, Southwest Toxic Watch, Wetlands Action Network and Dr. Miguel Lavin, CICESE.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270