Managing an endangered river across the USA-Mexico border

Policy Brief #13, October 2016. To overcome pressures on water quantity and quality in the Rio Grande/Bravo the 1944 Water Treaty between Mexico and the USA must be adapted, taking full advantage of the institutional flexibility to include environmental sustainability.

Policy Brief #13, cover

Policy Brief #13, cover


  • The Rio Grande/Bravo is a lifeline to the desert in northern Mexico and southwest USA, and forms the boundary between the USA and Mexico for 2,034 km. However, it suffers from both low rainfall and a high level of pollution, leading to low water quantity and quality.
  • The 1944 Water Treaty, which encompasses the river, does not currently include any provision for environmental sustainability. However, the institutional flexibility is available to adapt the treaty via the ‘minute’ system. Minutes form extensions of the treaty and can be used to address extant and emerging issues.
  • Research into the views of water managers, farmers, engineers, academics, and representatives of environmental groups showed that a large proportion of these stakeholders were concerned that there was no sustainability provision in the treaty to ensure enough water for river ecosystems.
  • We recommend that the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), as the relevant institutional body, authorize studies on the water flow required to maintain the function and resilience of the aquatic ecosystems which provide goods and services to society.
  • The IBWC should also create an exploratory water taskforce to gather valuable insights from stakeholders, and encourage engagement with the process.
  • Once these two steps have been taken, the IBWC should provide clear recommendations to the US and Mexican governments that will improve water management in the region.
  • The minute system can then be effectively used to adapt the scope of the 1944 Water Treaty in the face of pressing current problems and future challenges.

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Last edited: 20 October 2016


Luzma Nava Jimenez

IIASA Water Program Alumni

IIASA Research Program

The Water Program

IIASA Futures Initiative

Water Futures and Solutions


Nava, L.F. , Brown, C., Demeter, K., Lasserre, F., Milanes-Murcia, M., Mumme, S., & Sandoval-Solis, S. (2016). Existing opportunities to adapt the Rio Grande/Bravo Basin Water Resources Allocation Framework. Water 8 (7), e291. 10.3390/w8070291.

Burek, P. , Satoh, Y., Fischer, G., Kahil, M.T. , Scherzer, A., Tramberend, S. , Nava, L.F. , Wada, Y. , Eisner, S., Flörke, M., Hanasaki, N., Magnuszewski, P., Cosgrove, B., & Wiberg, D. (2016). Water Futures and Solution - Fast Track Initiative (Final Report). IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-16-006

Eaton, D., Niemeyer, S., Lander, A., & Nava, L.F. (2016). Towards an English-Spanish version of the Comprehensive Transboundary International Water Quality Management Agreement. In: World Environmental & Water Resources Congress, 22-26 May 2016, West Palm Beach, Florida.

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