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Engineering Diplomacy: The Evolving Role of the International Boundary and Water Commission in U.S.-Mexico Water Management

Stephen P. Mumme


However one chooses to consider the work of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico (IBWC)--whether from a cultural, geographic or political standpoint--one is drawn to the conclusion it is as remarkable a regional water management agency as can be found anywhere. Supervising the boundary and water of the entire 1967 mile border, the Commission oversees two major river basins, numerous lesser ones, and over 700 miles of land boundary between El Paso, Texas and Tijuana, Baja California Norte. The Commissions' jurisdiction, originating prior to the turn of the century, has grown to embrace a wide range of functions and an extraordinarily diverse geographic and human landscape in the 1980s. In the process it has acquired a reputation as a singularly effective diplomatic and administrative agency and made this delicate sphere of U.S.-Mexican relations the hallmark of binational cooperation. It is at present the only officially designated international organization and permanently institutionalized commission in any sphere of U.S.-Mexico relations (Federal Register, 1984:292). As such, it has become a model for emulation by other countries.

From its modest beginnings as a binational agency charged with mapping and maintaining the international boundary, the IBWC's jurisdiction and functions have grown to encompass an array of water management responsibilities and projects, ranging from water apportionment, storage, and flood control, to include border sanitation, water quality, and emergency water supply. Most important, the Commission has evolved as both a diplomatic and technical agency, with primary responsibilities for enforcing and interpreting the provisions of the international treaties with which it is entrusted, and anticipating and designing solutions to new problems within its jurisdiction. The Commission's work is, therefore, dynamic and changing. In the 1970s and 1980s it has faced a number of new issues and challenges that have significantly broadened its actual functions and portend further changes in the Commission's agenda.

This paper is addressed to an understanding of these issues, how they have affected the work of the Commission and its capacity to respond to the new items on its agenda. The principal thesis developed in the following pages is that the IBWC functions subject to institutional and political limitations that 1) enable it to be dynamic and effective in certain areas and 2) circumscribe its functional development in others. This dual relationship has rather significant implications for the evolution of the Commission's work in the 1980s and the way in which it will respond to the several challenges it currently faces. In subsequent pages the paper sets out the functional character and scope of the Commission's work, its institutional and political limitations, current problems on the agenda of the Commission, and an analysis of its capacity to deal with these issues in the 1980s.

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