In Mexico’s dry north, the Colorado River adds to the uncertainty

MEXICALI (AP) – When Gilbert Quintana, a farmer in the Mexicali Valley, learned he would soon lose 15 percent of his water supply, he did what he had done a while ago: He bought water from other growers in northern Mexico.

But Quintana worries that such solutions won’t always be possible. The water used to irrigate the 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of Brussels sprouts, spring onions and lettuce comes from the Colorado River, which a major drought in the American West, partly due to climate change, is rapidly depleting.

Buying water from other farmers is often the only way to farm the same acreage anymore, Quintana said, “but it’s short-term.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as we approach the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are teaming up to explore pressures on the river in 2022.

By the time the Colorado River reaches Mexico, only a fraction of its water is left for the fields of the Mexicali Valley and millions of people in the northwestern desert cities. Now, that supply is more at risk than ever.

Water experts and scientists say Mexico, across the river, will need to find other water for the two northwestern states that depend on it. They say the country should also use its supply more efficiently. But Mexico was slow to act.

“This hit us so fast that it took us a while to realize that it’s not a drought, it’s a new season. It’s a new regime,” said Carlos de la Parra, professor of urban and environmental studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

The National Water Commission declared a state of emergency in four northern states in July. About 65% of the country was experiencing drought. A swath stretching from Tijuana to Matamoros, more than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers), remains dry, with water outages common in cities and towns and key reservoirs near historic lows.

Tijuana, the large border city of 2 million people, is particularly dependent on Colorado. About 90% of its water comes from the river. Parts of the city have been baked this summer as taps run dry – sometimes due to poor management – with local water authorities blaming the drought.

“It’s mismanagement linked to the drought,” said Mario López Pérez, a consultant at the World Bank who formerly worked for Mexico’s national water commission.

To fill the gap, the government sent water tankers, a common sight in Mexican cities, to neighborhoods without running water. People have also bought water from private sellers.


For more than a decade, officials in Baja California have been talking about building a large desalination plant in a coastal city near Tijuana. In 2016, state officials finalized a plan to abandon it four years later, citing its high cost. The energy-intensive technology works by removing impurities from seawater. Mexico has other, small desalination plants elsewhere in the state and country.

Roberto Salmón helped oversee US-Mexico border and river treaties as Mexico’s representative to the International Boundary and Water Commission between 2009 and 2020. He said a desalination plant would greatly help Tijuana.

“But discussions have been going on since I came to the committee,” said Salmon, “and there is still no plant.”

A single aqueduct that crosses the state, including a 1,219-meter steep mountain, brings Colorado River water to Tijuana. “It’s a one-source city,” Salmon said.

Officials and companies alike have talked about using treated recycled sewage to boost the city’s water supply for years, but the city has a lot to show for it.


Maria-Elena Giner, the U.S. representative to the IBWC, said the U.S. is considering projects that could help Mexico save more water in the Colorado River with about $32 million made available in 2017. The money could go toward lining leaking canals, helping farmers switch to efficient drip irrigation and paying others to leave fields fallow, he said.

But getting Mexico to use much less water — and quickly — will be difficult.

“We did a lot of the low-hanging fruit,” Giner said. “Our problem right now is how do we do the most difficult projects in Mexico.”

Mexican officials, meanwhile, say water conservation must be balanced against need.

“We have to evaluate how we can contribute,” said Francisco Bernal, who heads the National Water Commission in Baja California. “But we also need to see that there is no serious impact on our allocation.”

Since 1944, Mexico has received slightly more than a third of what California can receive each year from the Colorado River. Next year, it will lose 7% of that, or more than what the industrial border city of Mexicali – population 1 million – uses in a year, according to Alfonso Cortez-Lara, an environment professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Mexicali . which investigates transboundary water issues.

Nicolás Rodriguez, director of an irrigation district in the Mexicali Valley, said water shortages (this year, Mexico lost 5 percent of its total supply from the river) are starting to cause friction between irrigation district managers and farmers.

Farmers in the Mexicali Valley produce an almost identical array of crops — most for export to the U.S. — to what is grown just north of the border in California’s Imperial Valley. Leafy greens, broccoli, alfalfa and wheat are common. Farms tend to be much smaller.

Rodriguez said he has encouraged farmers for years to grow more drought-tolerant crops and plant narrower rows to use less water, which some farmers have consumed. Ultimately, he believes the government could limit the amount of alfalfa and cotton Mexicali Valley farmers can grow.

According to a recent study, the state of Baja California could need nearly 30% more than it now gets from the Colorado River by 2030 to avoid water stress.

Cortez-Lara, the study’s author, said that while cities would have to reduce water use, finding that much water would mean significantly reducing the amount of alfalfa and cotton grown in the Mexicali Valley. But doing so would come at a huge cost, he said, adding that Mexico’s federal government would have to play a role in financing and enforcing water efficiency.

Absent such action, water managers, experts and farmers like Quintana, who bought his way out of trouble this year, agree the shortages will worsen.

“The less water there is,” Quintana said, “the more farmers in the Mexicali Valley will have to fight.”


Naishadham reported from Washington, DC


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental politics. AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit

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