Salinity is a disease—a sometimes fatal one—that afflicts irrigation and other activities in most arid basins. Salt springs, salt leached from earth and rock, and salt in return-flow irrigation water all contribute to the load, but the main contribution in recent years to increased salinity in the lower Colorado basin is the higher concentration of salts resulting from increased use of the relatively pure water of the upper basin, mainly in interbasin diversions. This results in less dilution of the salt load on the river and therefore higher salinity in the downstream areas.
The headwaters of the Colorado River in Colorado contain a maximum of about 50 parts per million (ppm) of inorganic salts. By the time the water reaches Imperial Valley irrigation in California, the salt concentration has reached about 870 ppm. This is still quite usable water, but the increased salinity causes substantial costs in the lower basin not only to irrigated crops, but also—through increased corrosion—to water conveyance and handling facilities. The Colorado River Compact, which in 1922 divided up the waters of the Colorado between the upper and the lower basin states, was silent on the salinity question, thus setting the stage for regional conflict on this issue.
The Mexican issue
The United States completed a Colorado River treaty in 1944 with Mexico. The most important provision was an allotment to Mexico of a guaranteed annual quantity of water from the river of 1.5 million acre-feet per year. This treaty, too, said nothing about water quality.
For most of the period since 1944, the water delivered to Mexico, stored in Morelos reservoir, was not much saltier than that delivered to users in the lower basin in the United States. Nevertheless, in the course of time the inevitable gradual reduction of water quality most probably would have caused salinity to become an international issue.
But in the early 1960s, the quality of water being delivered to Mexico fell dramatically. In 1947 the Bureau of Reclamation's Wellton—Mohawk project in southwestern Arizona was authorized by Congress to deliver water for the irrigation of 75,000 acres. As a solution to salinity problems the project encountered, in 1961 the Wellton—Mohawk irrigation district started pumping from drainage wells and discharging saline water into the Colorado River below the last U.S. diversion point, but above the Mexican diversion point. This water—with a salinity level of about 6,000 ppm—jumped the salinity of the water delivered to Mexico from about 800 ppm in 1960 to more than 1,500 ppm in 1962. The effect of the increased salinity discharge was reinforced when the Glen Canyon Dam commenced filling in 1961 and the quantity of water delivered to Mexico dropped sharply. Mexico complained loudly.
Following some interim attempts to blunt the issue, in August 1972 President Nixon appointed Herbert Brownell, Jr., as his special representative on the salinity problem with Mexico and assigned to him the job of finding a "permanent" solution. After delivering a report, Brownell was appointed special ambassador to negotiate a solution with Mexico, the result of which was incorporated in Minute 242 of the International Water and Boundary Commission. This minute refers to itself as the "permanent and definitive solution" to the international salinity problem.
The Nixon administration pledged it-self to undertake the following measures:
- Construction of a major desalting plant and related works for Wellton—Mohawk drainage waters, scheduled to be completed by December 1978
- Extension of the Wellton—Mohawk drain (for the brine from the plant) to the Gulf of California, to be completed by December 1976
- Lining or construction of a new Coachella Canal in California, to be completed in April 1977
- Improved Wellton—Mohawk irrigation efficiency, scheduled for completion by December 1978.
As part of the negotiations, the basin states put forward a proposed Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program which included, but went beyond, the works that were required specifically by Minute 242. The program included facilities for controlling salinity at various points above Imperial Dam for the benefit of users in the United States as well as Mexico. It specified such measures as capping salt springs and diverting streams away from particular areas where heavy salt leaching occurs.
The U.S. Congress approved essentially the entire package. Although behind schedule and somewhat scaled down from its original capacity, the desalting plant is going forward and is scheduled for completion in 1986. Some other measures required by provisions of Minute 242, such as canal lining, have been completed.
Two questions are of special interest in the present context:
- What position did the states take in this situation of potentiality increased conflict in the upstream—downstream portions of the basin, and already intense international conflict over the same issue?
- Why did the United States agree to Minute 242 when all of its direct benefits are in Mexico and all of its costs are in the United States?
What the states did
The negotiators for the United States apparently understood the character of water politics in the Southwest very well. Brownell made the following statement after the agreement had been reached:
"This is a project that is based on dollars and not on water. I told the Western States at the beginning of the negotiations that nothing would be done, and nothing has been done as a result of this agreement, which would adversely affect the orderly development of the Western States. There are no limitations in the agreement which would adversely affect any of the planned programs for the development of natural resources of the basin states."
This statement reflects the assumption on the part of the negotiators that any politically successful agreement would have come at little or no cost—either in terms of money or water—to those directly affected. Political scientists who study these issues refer to western water politics as "distributive." According to a leading expert, Dean Mann, among their main features are:
- Settlement of conflicts through coalition-building at the local and regional levels before going to the federal level
- Avoidance of confrontation among competing interests, as a result of which winners and losers in the political battle and income consequences are disguised
- Dependence on federal financing
- Logrolling for mutual benefit with other similarly situated interests who seek diverse objectives through congressional action.
Regarding the salinity program, Mann continues:
". . . Traditional water politics appear to he leading to solutions congruent with the output of previous water politics, i.e., formation of a strong local or regional coalition by a process of bargaining and accommodation, leadership provided by federal bureaus, an ability to find a basis for bargaining with other interests—in this case, the national administration—and an avoidance of issues that might make clear the winner and losers in the political battle. The achievement of unity within the entire basin has made the salinity control coalition a powerful one indeed. It has been successful thus far in achieving an approach to the solution of the salinity problem that promises extensive benefits to traditional beneficiaries of such an approach with very little cost. One might agree with the National Academy of Sciences in their view that water management on the Colorado River should reflect comprehensive assessments of alternatives and explicit recognition of tradeoffs in the uses to which the river's water is put and the investments that make those investments possible. But the existing political arrangements and practices—based on complex constitutional, legal, administrative, and financial arrangements—make such analysis difficult. The consequence is planning by bargaining and decisions that are made possible because there is little or no sacrifice by any important interest within the region. Thus, intraregional tradeoffs of costs and benefits are ignored while the general taxpayer pays the bill. Unfortunately, at the national level there is seldom a careful assessment of whether paying that bill compares favorably with paying other bills that might realize greater national welfare in return for the investment."
The international aspect is the main difference between the political situation in this case and other notable water developments in the Southwest (for example, the Colorado Basin Project Act negotiated during the 1950s and 1960s, which sprinkled project authorizations around the basin). The states were able to use this aspect to argue (successfully) that reducing and controlling salinity in the Colorado was a national obligation and in this way were able to shift the cost to the national taxpayer. At the same time, they were able to suppress a developing internal conflict between the upper and lower basin states by means of the Colorado Basin Salinity Program, again at the expense of the national taxpayer.
But why did the United States want so badly to enter into an agreement with Mexico from which all the visible benefits accrue to Mexico?
Why the United States did it
In a situation like this, if one views the matter from a narrow economic point of view, no basis for agreement exists unless the victim country compensates the damaging country for costs incurred to reduce the damage. If the damaging country acts in its own immediate economic self-interest, it will not be willing to reach any other sort of agreement.
The Rhine River provides an interesting illustration of a situation that produces the victim-pays result. The Netherlands, being at the terminus of that river, stands in somewhat the same relation to the upstream countries as Mexico does to the United States on the Colorado. Indeed, salinity is the main water quality problem in both cases. The Dutch, finding it increasingly difficult to use the Rhine's waters either for industrial or municipal purposes, agreed in 1972 to pay the French, whose potash industry is the main source of Rhine salinity, 35 percent of the costs of control to reduce the salinity of the river.
But the United States has agreed to pay the entire cost of mitigating the Colorado situation. If the United States had narrowly interpreted its economic self-interest, it either would have done nothing or would have required Mexico to pay some or all of the costs of mitigation. This, then, leads one to wonder what factors, other than magnitudes and distribution of strictly economic costs and benefits, could be important in the U.S. decision. Economic costs and benefits always are pertinent to the development of national decisions, including this one. But if they had been the only consideration, the situation would not have turned out that way.
It appears that negotiations about international rivers frequently involve considerations in quite other arenas, and these "extraneous" considerations often are dominant. In other words, it is impossible to understand the outcome of such an international negotiation simply by looking at its apparent focus. Indeed, it may be that even the initiation of negotiations on an international river problem is spurred by non economic national interests; clearly the results often are. For example, RFF's John Krutilla has shown that various considerations, including military strategic ones, persuaded U.S. agreement to a treaty on the Columbia that was quite unfavorable to the United States economically. Thus, matters such as trade concessions, military bases, and the desire to win allies in international politics often may be overriding considerations.
In addition, the international image a country wishes to project may be important. One might so interpret the agreement of the Swiss, who are at the head of the Rhine River, to pay 5 percent of the costs of reducing salt discharges in France. And a country may wish to demonstrate respect for international law, which holds that a polluting country is responsible for controlling its degradations of an international environmental medium. My own belief, however, is that these international good citizenship considerations are not nearly as important as those more directly concerning national self-interest.
Thus, the results of domestic and international conflicts between states and regions may not be so arbitrary or irrational as it first might seem. Indeed, as long as all interested parties have something of value to trade, and as long as national self-interest is the primary motive force in international affairs, as I believe it is, this broad trading process seems to be the only sure path to international agreements. This may be especially true in the situation that characterizes the salinity problem of the Colorado River.
The 1973 agreement seems to have been a situation in which the United States was anxious to cultivate more favorable relations with Latin American countries and, more generally, to reduce international stresses in the world at large. But it is very interesting to observe the means the United States chose for implementing the agreement. In this connection, Irving Fox and coauthors have identified a number of premises about international agreements on rivers. Their Premise No. 4 reads as follows: "Configuration of power and influence within a country may have an important bearing on the kind of program acceptable to it and upon how the planning and implementation of the program can be done effectively." Examples of such internal forces affecting the nature of agreements reached can be found in negotiations between the United States and Canada both on the Saint Lawrence and the Columbia. In both cases, regional interests had a powerful influence on the specific nature of the agreements reached.
The internal forces are especially clear in the salinity agreement. As suggested, the basin states seem to have been determined not to lose a single drop of water to Mexico no matter what it might cost the general taxpayer in the United States. Rough calculations indicate that it would have been far cheaper to buy the necessary water rights to send purer water to the Mexicali Valley than to implement the means actually chosen, especially the desalting plant. But there simply was no effective advocate for efficiency, and the result is a wildly uneconomic approach to the problem of reducing salinity in the Mexicali Valley.
The diplomatic language characteristic of international negotiations terms the agreement a "definitive and final solution" to the problem. Perhaps typically, however, a little space exists between the diplomatic language and the realities of the situation. Most important, further increases in salinity of the Colorado River are inevitable. In due course this will raise the question of absolute levels of salinity permitted to be delivered to Mexico (the relative prescription found in the agreement links the permitted deliveries of salt to what arrives at the Imperial Dam in the United States). The issue will rise again.
Does "distributive politics" have a future in the Southwest?
The great salinity negotiation involving the United States, Mexico, and each of the basin states may be the last exercise in distributive politics related to water in the Colorado Basin, at least on such a scale. The remaining large water development projects—the Central Arizona Project and the Central Utah Project—are well on the way to completion, and the problem for the region is fast becoming one of allocating and using the fixed water supply efficiently. The only future development that might open up the distributive politics game on an even larger—if not grandiose—scale is the possibility of massive interbasin transfers of water. Schemes that have been suggested range from relatively modest proposals, such as bringing 1 million acre-feet per year from the Snake River to the headwaters of the Colorado, to a gigantic proposal known as the North American Water and Power Alliance, which would bring 110 million acre-feet (the average annual natural flow of the Colorado is under 15 million acre feet) from northern Canada to the Southwest, the Great Lakes, and the Missouri-Mississippi River systems. The "Christmas tree" that would have to be assembled to put that in the mode of distributive politics boggles the mind. In my judgment, political, economic, and ecological considerations make it unimaginable that any large quantities of outside water will be brought into the Colorado Basin in the foreseeable future. The end of an era appears to be at hand.
Author Allen V. Kneese is a senior fellow in RFF's Quality of the Environment P: vision. For a detailed discussion of all aspects of the Colorado salinity issue, he recommends the January 1975 issue of the Natural Resources Journal.