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Updated 3 November, 2003
Environmental Water Security: Lessons from the Southwestern U.S., Northwestern Mexico, and the Middle East
USGCRP Seminar, 23 November 1998
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How has water been used to transform desert regions into productive and livable environments? What are the current and projected trends in water use in regions such as the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, and the Middle East? How much water is presently available in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, and in the Middle East? Are the available water resources in these regions sufficient to sustain anticipated future growth? If not, what options are available to these regions? How might climate change affect these trends, estimates, and projections? What are the collective lessons one might draw from a closer look at water resources in these two otherwise disparate regions of the world?


Peter R. Jutro,
Senior Scientist, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC


Jason Morrison,
Senior Associate, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, Oakland, CA
Aaron T. Wolf,
Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR

Water Scarcity and Environmental Security in the Southwestern US and Northwestern Mexico

Spanning 1,400 miles and eventually running through Mexico to the Sea of Cortez, the Colorado River is the lifeblood for the arid southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Current management and use of water resources in the Colorado River basin serve as a good illustration of the connections among increasing scarcity, legal conflicts, and the unsustainable use of water resources. In particular, social problems associated with the overallocation and misallocation of total water resources, and substantial threats to significant ecological resources such as the Colorado River delta, are all reaching critical levels as demands for the limited resources of the basin are increasing.

Of the top five fastest growing states in the United States, four are in the Colorado River Basin. Likewise, population in the northern Mexico states of Sonora and Baja California has been, and is expected to continue, growing at a rate of 5 percent per year. Increases in population and in urban water demands are projected to place even greater stress on an agricultural economy already suffering from the rapid conversion of open space to urban development. Long-term groundwater overdraft, while not yet a significant problem in the upper basin, occurs on an annual basis in all three of the lower basin states and also in Mexico's Mexicali Valley. Compounding the pressure on the already scarce resource are unfulfilled American Indian water claims and growing demands for giving a higher priority to fisheries and habitat protection in order to restore aquatic systems of the Colorado River and its estuary.

Growth in water demand has been very rapid. In 1988, Nevada used less than 130,000 acre-feet (af=one acre of water one foot deep) of its 300,000 acre-foot Colorado River entitlement. By 1995, its use of the river's water grew to 225,000 af/year, and today, even with the inclusion of ambitious water conservation goals, water managers predict the state will use its full entitlement before 2025. The population of Las Vegas grew by over 26 percent from 1990 to 1994, and the total population of southern Nevada is expected to more than double its 1990 population of 800,000 by the year 2020. The state of Arizona and the northwestern region of Mexico are both expected to grow by 90 percent over the same period.

As of 1990, more than 1.2 maf (one million acre feet=one million acres of water one foot deep) of groundwater were being overdrafted on an annual basis in the lower Colorado River basin and Mexico. Historically, average groundwater withdrawals in Arizona have exceeded recharge by approximately 2 maf/year. However, due largely to Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project, current groundwater overdraft has been reduced to less than 1 maf/year. As of five years ago, almost 15 percent of Arizona's water supply consisted of overdrafted groundwater. Despite Arizona's "safe yield" goals, current programs and planned measures will alleviate only a portion of the groundwater overdraft; long-term projections suggest annual overpumping in excess of 500,000 af/year in 2025

Moreover, unquantified Indian claims in the state of Arizona alone have been estimated to be as high as 3 maf, which is more than the state's entire Colorado River entitlement of 2.8 maf.

Dividing and Developing the Colorado River

Today, the Colorado River supplies water to nearly 30 million people and irrigates more than 3.7 million acres of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico. Controlled by some 29 dams, the Colorado River ranks among the most heavily plumbed water systems in the world. Except for unusually high flood years, virtually the entire flow of the river is now captured and used -- and has been since the early sixties, when Glen Canyon Dam was completed

A fundamental problem in the Colorado River basin is that the long-term planned use of the river's water exceeds the reliable available supply. Because total legal entitlements to the river's water are greater than the river's average annual flow, the river has been deemed "over-apportioned." One of the principal assumptions at the time the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed by water users of the basin was that the long-term average flow of the river was close to 18 maf/year measured at Lee Ferry, the official point dividing the upper and the lower portions of the basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation currently estimates the average flow at Lee Ferry to be approximately 15 maf/year. Despite the fact that the river's flows were grossly overestimated, subsequent laws and decrees have been based upon the original Compact apportionments.

Further, when the waters of the river were divided over 70 years ago, no water was dedicated to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems. Recreation and ecosystem health are not explicitly recognized in the current management approaches. In fact, until quite recently, environmental needs such as instream flows have been met with unused entitlements. In other words, environmental water requirements such as the sustainability needs of the Colorado River Delta had been relegated to living off of "borrowed" water.

Crisis and the Seeds of Change

There is not enough water in the system under current laws and management regimes to satisfy all future human demands and to protect the river's ecological functions. While upper basin states remain far from using their full legal entitlement to the river's water, in 1990, for the first time, the lower U.S. portion of the basin used its full 7.5 maf entitlement. Reaching this threshold has provoked a general rethinking of management strategies (i.e., off-stream groundwater storage of surplus flows, the simulation of more natural flow regimes, and voluntary transfers of water) to exercise and promote more efficient use of water and to redistribute water toward higher-valued activities.

Deeply ingrained attitudes and vested interests still represent formidable obstacles to changing water use and management practices. Continuing down the current path of inefficient and highly subsidized agricultural water use, escalating urban demands, and neglect of ecosystems, Native American communities, and future generations, is a recipe for conflict and ecological decline.


The massive and long-term overdraft of groundwater resources in nearly every region in the lower basin is not sustainable and reduces options for future generations.

  • Considerably more thought and attention might be directed at integrating the planning and management efforts of the various entities in the region. Only cooperative efforts involving all parties are likely to remedy the problems of the Colorado River. Land-use planning could be more effective if integrated with water planning, and vice versa.

  • The issues of restoring and protecting freshwater ecosystems in the basin will have to be dealt with explicitly. Failure to do so will likely result in continued degradation of the environmental health of the Colorado River basin. Any successful ecosystem restoration program for the delta will likely require a formal international agreement.

  • The unresolved issue of Indian tribes' water rights claims requires resolution.

Water Security in the Middle East

More than half of the total land surface of the planet is drained by some 261 international rivers, and internationally shared aquifers abound. Water has been a cause of political tensions between Arabs and Israelis; Indians and Bangladeshis; Americans and Mexicans; and all ten riparian states of the Nile River. Water is the only scarce resource for which there is no substitute, over which there is poorly-developed international law, and the need for which is overwhelming, constant, and immediate.

Accounts of conflict related to water indicate that only seven minor skirmishes have occurred in this century, and that no war has yet been fought over water. In contrast, 145 water-related treaties were signed in the same period. Shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh water's conflict-inducing characteristics. Furthermore, once cooperative water regimes are established through treaties, they turn out to be impressively resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparians, and even as conflict is waged over other issues. These patterns suggest that international water is a resource whose characteristics tend to induce cooperation, and incite violence only in the exception.

The history of hydropolitics along the rivers of the Middle East exemplifies both the worst and the best of relations over international water. All of the Jordan River riparian countries and territories riparian to the Jordan River - Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestine Authority - are currently using between 95% and more than 100% of their annual renewable freshwater supply. In recent dry years, water consumption has routinely exceeded annual supply, the difference usually being made up through overdraft of fragile groundwater systems. By 2020, shortages will be the norm. Projected water requirements for the year 2020 are 1.62 maf annually for Israel, approximately 130% of current renewable supplies, 0.81 maf, or 120% of current supplies, for Jordan, and 0.25 maf, or 150% of current supplies, for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza.

Making the resolution of tensions more difficult is the fact that intense and fluctuating geopolitical forces have crafted political boundaries in direct contradiction to the natural boundaries of the watersheds of the region. Water-related tensions, for example, involved the borders of the British and French Mandates, later the modern entities of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestine Authority. As each of these entities developed their water resources unilaterally, dispute became inevitable - every state or territory in the Jordan watershed has at least some of its water sources in a different, and occasionally hostile, state or territory. Exchanges of fire actually broke out over water between Israel and Syria in the mid-1950's and 1960's. The problems were only exacerbated with the 1967 war.

The West Bank overlies three major aquifers, two of which Israel has been tapping into from its side of the Green Line since 1955. In the years of Israeli occupation, a growing West Bank and Gaza population, along with burgeoning Jewish settlements, has increased the burden on the limited groundwater supply, resulting in an exacerbation of already tense political relations. Palestinians have objected strenuously to Israeli control of local water resources and to settlement development, which they see as being at their territorial and hydrologic expense. Israeli authorities view hydrologic control in the West Bank as defensive. With about 30% of Israeli water originating on the West Bank, the Israelis perceive the necessity to limit groundwater exploitation in these territories in order to protect the resources themselves, and their wells from saltwater intrusion. It is no wonder that water was the last and most contentious issue negotiated in the Jordan-Israel Treaty of Peace of 1994, or that the question of water rights between Israel and the Palestinians has been postponed until final status talks, along with the most intricate and politically sensitive issues of Jerusalem and statehood.

Nevertheless, while shared water resources have led to, and occasionally crossed, the brink of armed conflict, they have also been a catalyst for cooperation between otherwise hostile neighbors, albeit rarely and secretively. For example, despite a growing literature which suggests that Israel-Arab warfare has had a "hydrostrategic" component, the evidence suggests that water resources were not at all factors for strategic planning in the hostilities of 1948, 1967, 1978, or 1982. The decision to go to war, and strategic decisions made during the fighting including which territory was necessary to capture, were apparently not influenced by water scarcity or the location of water resources. Moreover, while the questions of water allocations and rights have been among the most difficult components in the Arab-Israeli peace talks, and despite the quantity of studies identifying hydrostrategic territory and advising its retention, no territory to date has been retained simply because of the location of water. Solutions in each case have focused on creative joint management of the resource, rather than insistence on sovereignty.


Jason Morrison is a Senior Associate of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research center based in Oakland, California. He is a leading expert on the sustainable management of freshwater resources and water planning in California and the southwestern U.S. His current research includes work on restoration of the Salton Sea in California and binational water management in the Colorado River border region.

Mr. Morrison has published widely in scholarly and popular publications, and is the lead author of a 1996 United Nations report entitled: The Sustainable Use of Water in the Lower Colorado River Basin. He is also co-author of the Colorado River Basin analysis in the soon-to-be-released report, Transboundary Freshwater Resources of North America, sponsored by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. In addition to working on issues relating to western water policy, Mr. Morrison heads the Pacific Institute's Economic Globalization, and the Environment Program.. He is currently analyzing the public policy implications of voluntary international standards, focusing on the environmental management standards -- ISO 14000.

Mr. Morrison is presently a member of the US Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee 207, as well as a US "expert" delegate to Subcommittee 3 (Ecolabeling), and to Subcommittee 5 (Life Cycle Assessment). He is a participant of the Multi-State Working Group on ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems, and a founding member of the NGO Working Group on ISO 14000.

Mr. Morrison holds a M. S. degree from Boston University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies and a B. A. degree in Philosophy from the University of California, San Diego. In 1994, Mr. Morrison was a fellow with the Americans and World Affairs Fellowship Program in Berkeley, California.

Aaron T. Wolf is an assistant professor of geography in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. His recent research focuses on issues relating international water resources to political conflict and cooperation, where combining environmental science with dispute resolution theory and practice have been particularly appropriate. He has acted as consultant to the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development, and the World Bank on various aspects of international water resources and dispute resolution. He has been involved in developing strategies for resolving water-related aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including co-authoring a State Department reference text, and participating in both official and "track II" meetings between co-riparians. He is author of Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River: The Impact of Scarce Water Resources on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (United Nations University Press, 1995), and co-author of Core and Periphery: A Comprehensive Approach to Middle Eastern Water, (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Dr. Wolf coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, which includes a computer database of 150 water-related treaties, negotiating notes and background material on fourteen case-studies of conflict resolution, news files on cases of acute water-related conflict, and assessments of indigenous/traditional methods of water conflict resolution. He is also on the advisory councils of UNESCO's International Hydrological Program, and the ADC New Millennium World Water Tribunal.

Dr. Wolf is a member of the Association of American Geographers, the American Water Resources Association, the International Water Resources Association, and the International Association for Impact Assessment. He is an associate editor of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Water International, and World Water Policy.

Dr. Wolf has an M.S. degree in water resources management (emphasizing hydrogeology) and a Ph.D. in environmental policy analysis (emphasizing dispute resolution) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


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