With Texas and Northern Mexico in a seemingly endless drought, groundwater is becoming a significantly more important resource for communities on both sides of the border. Gabriel Eckstein, professor at Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth, and Rosario Sanchez Flores, program coordinator at Texas A&M’s Department of Water Management and Hydrological Science in College Station, have teamed up to create opportunities for increased cooperation between Texas and Mexico to share water resources and lessen the impact of the drought.
Eckstein, who is instrumental in international water law discussions, and Sanchez Flores are exploring the shared aquifers between Texas and Northern Mexico.
An aquifer is an underground water resource from which groundwater can be extracted through a well or spring. While 276 international rivers and lakes cross international boundaries, more than 450 aquifer systems cross similar political borders around the world, and hydrological experts and scientists are still discovering new transboundary aquifers.
Eckstein says there’s only one official transboundary aquifer agreement in the world, which is in operation between France and Switzerland. That type of cooperation doesn’t exist between the U.S. and Mexico. “Both sides (U.S. and Mexico) are pumping as if it’s their water without considering the consequences on the other side,” he said, adding that it’s still unclear how many aquifers are shared on the border, but he and Sanchez Flores plan to find out.
El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, have a memorandum of understanding to share resources and information about their shared aquifer, but according to Eckstein, communities all across the border region in both Mexico and the United States are pumping from these aquifers without consultation. With some 15 million populating the border in the 50 miles spanning either side of the frontier, this situation raises serious concerns. Twenty million people are expected to populate the shared border between the U.S. and Mexico by 2020, and “nearly every border city on both sides is highly dependent on groundwater, as there are few rivers or lakes to draw water from and eventually, they’ll exploit their resources,” Eckstein said.
Eckstein notes that groundwater is being polluted on both sides of the border from factories, agriculture, municipalities and other sources of untreated water discharges. His research team is working to identify and characterize the shared aquifers from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Research will continue over the next year to locate the aquifers on maps, determine the volume of water available, assess groundwater’s various uses along the border, compare the rates of recharge against withdrawals, and identify threats to the aquifers.
As data is collected, the team expects to create a series of maps “the first of its kind” detailing its findings with complete characterization of the aquifers that traverse the Mexico and U.S. border. In a later stage, based on the results of the study, the team expects to propose specific local governance and legal mechanisms for the sustainable use of these aquifers.
Different rules and regulations may be applicable to different aquifers depending on rate of flow, contamination threats, predominant water uses or other characteristics, Eckstein said. He expects this partnership to grow to include more law school students and graduate- and doctoral-level students from Texas A&M as the research progresses.
Since 2010, Eckstein has been a member of the law faculty, the graduate faculty at Texas A&M and the Texas A&M Water Management and Hydrological Science graduate faculty.
He has published more than a dozen articles on various aspects of internationally shared groundwater resources; view them here.
To read more about international water law and policy, visit Eckstein’s website at internationalwaterlaw.org.
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