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Southern California Water Politics and U.S.-Mexican Relations: Lining the All-American Canal

Thomas Waller

Abstract


Improving the efficiency of irrigation systems has been repeatedly identified by water policy experts as a yet untapped means to alleviate scarcity. Water conservation, it is argued, is cheaper and less environmentally destructive to still unharnessed rivers. Yet even conservation tampers with the hydrologic cycle and can have unintended or undesirable consequences. As a case in point stands a scarcity relieving endeavor being undertaken along the United States-Mexico border, that has been called timely and innovative, as well as premature and divisive. Driven by increasing demands for water in the South Coast Basin of California, two Southern Californian water districts are moving ahead with plans to recover water seeping through the earthen banks of the All-American Canal, the lifeline of the irrigated farmlands of the Imperial Valley (see Map 1). Demonstrating the cliched truism that natural environments do not recognize political boundaries, conserving the canal's waters will likely draw down and eventually dry up wells used to irrigate crops on the Mexican side of the border. Settling this brewing dispute would require a mediated agreement not only satisfying uncompromisingly thirsty domestic interests, but also transcending the long history of competition and antagonism they have shared over water resources. To clarify this situation, this article discusses the economic, political, and ecological trends that are pushing Southern Californian water agencies towards this conservation project; illuminates the canal's historical role in the binational competition over water resources; describes how antagonistic U.S. interests, as well as Mexico's, have shaped the policy making process; and implies what this project means for the role of transboundary resource management in U.S.-Mexican relations.

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Print ISSN: 0886-5655
Online ISSN: 2159-1229

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