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Story Publication logo June 27, 2022

As Drought Pummels Northern Mexico, Baja Weighs Buying Water From Mexicali’s Farmers

The Tijuana Estuary

A binational, bilingual reporting project on the Tijuana Estuary, led by Voice of San Diego in...


A woman scoops water from a storage tank on top of her apartment in Villas de Santa Fe neighborhood in Tijuana on April 20, 2022. Image by MacKenzie Elmer. Mexico.

The drought is hitting northern Mexico so hard that the state of Baja will likely have to buy water from farmers in the agricultural region of Mexicali. 

That’s what Vicente Calderón, my collaborator on the Tijuana River Pollution crisis series, reported last week. He tapped José Armando Fernández Samaniego, the Baja secretary for water management, sanitation and protection, for more details and here’s what he learned.

If the people of Baja don’t reduce their water use by at least 20 percent per household, the government will probably have to buy extra water at an inflated price — perhaps three times its value.

“Since the last three weeks we have been urging [people to reduce their water use], but it hasn’t happened,” Fernández Samaniego said. “So, we ask people to please support us in solidarity.”

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Tijuana residents already suffer through frequent water shutoffs. Baja weighed a similar water purchase in the summer of 2015 when extreme drought gripped the region, as our Border Report contributor Sandra Dibble wrote for the Union-Tribune at the time.

Tijuana relies on the Colorado River for almost all of its water. Snowmelt from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains form the headwaters of a river that provides water to 40 million people and vast agricultural economies in two nations. Westerners are worrying over the level of water in the Lake Mead reservoir behind the Hoover Dam because it dictates which states or nations take cuts in the event of a shortage.

Lake Mead can hold about 28.9 million acre-feet of water—an acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land, a little less than a football field, one foot deep. Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet from the river under a 1944 treaty. In 2017, Mexico agreed to changes in its delivery when water is scarce or there’s a surplus under a separate agreement called Minute 323.

Under Minute 323, Mexico can lose up to 18-percent of its portion once the water level in Lake Mead dips to 1,025 feet, according to agreement, but it can get some of that water back when Lake Mead levels recover. As of 8 a.m. Monday, Lake Mead’s water level stood at 1,043.47 feet above sea level.

In June of 2015, when Mexican officials considered buying Colorado River water from Mexicali farmers to serve urban areas along the coast, Lake Mead reached a then-record-low of 1,074 feet. Lake Mead is less full, today. The apocalypse scenario is if the lake ever reaches a water level of 895 feet, then the water level would be so low that none could flow downstream from the dam, a scenario known as “dead pool.” But we’re not there, yet.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s historic timeline for Lake Mead levels makes a “dead pool” scenario seem like a distant future. Some believe we’re years away from such a catastrophe, but federal officials warned the U.S. Colorado River basin states they must figure out a way to conserve 2 million acre-feet to 4 million acre-feet or risk being told how to do so by the feds. For comparison’s sake, California gets 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year.

It’s not clear what would happen to Mexico should Lake Mead reach "dead pool." Under the international agreement, when the water level at Lake Mead is projected to be at or below 1,045 feet above sea level—it’s two feet below that level now—it triggers talks between the two countries over how to plan for future shortages to ensure we never get there.

Talks actually began back in October when it became clear the situation on the Colorado River was getting worse, said Sally Spener, Foreign Affairs Officer for the International Boundary and Water Commission, or IBWC, an agency designated to negotiate water matters between the U.S. and Mexico. The IBWC started a binational group to identify water conservation projects in Mexico that could accept U.S. investment.

Recycling wastewater for irrigation (instead of using straight Colorado River water), installing more efficient irrigation systems for farmers, leveling and fallowing land (taking crops out of production), and lining canals to prevent water from seeping into the ground are all on the table for Mexico. 

“[Mexico] sees what’s happening to the reservoirs,” Spener said. “They understand we’re in a 23-year long drought and that it’s important for both countries to cooperate and take action to protect our shared water supply.”

As the drought situation in Baja gets worse, and its leaders prepare for a water purchase from Mexicali farmers, residents are getting mixed messages about whether there will be more systemwide water cuts.

Yet the fingerprints of worsening water scarcity in Tijuana continue to pop up. In early June, several schools reportedly canceled classes because their water was shut off by the State Sanitation Department. And local news reported some communities in Ensenada, at the very end of the pipeline to the Colorado River, experienced shutoffs that lasted over a month.

Baja governor Marina del Pilar Ávila, who is from Mexicali, told reporters back in May that the government was working on a water rationing program led by her then Secretary of Water, Francisco Bernal Rodriguez, who left the agency to take a position with Mexico’s national commission on water called CONAGUA, based in Mexicali. The governor replaced Bernal with Fernández Samaniego, the former Director of State Public Services, called CESPT, in Mexicali, on June 2.

Since then, Fernández Samaniego announced this effort to buy Mexicali water, declaring that there would be no water shut offs as long as residents conserved. If Tijuana can’t reduce consumption by the 20-percent the government is hoping for, Fernández Samaniego told Calderón, “we’ll figure out what to do.”

Reporting on the Tijuana River sewage crisis is produced by Voice of San Diego in partnership with the, and with support from The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Pulitzer Center. Our binational, bilingual reporting and photojournalism series illuminates longstanding environmental issues that severely impact quality of life along the border.


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