Two Rivers, Two Nations, One History: The Transformation of the ColoradoRiver Delta Since 1940

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Evan Ward


El presente texto se centra en la transformación del delta del río Colorado desde 1940. No sólo considera los problemas ecológicos de la región como un asunto exclusivo de los países que la comparten, sino que busca llegar a una perspectiva más holística de la situación, la cual involucra no sólo a los gobiernos de Estados Unidos y México, sino también toma en cuenta el rol histórico de los grupos indígenas en el delta, especialmente en los temas de desconfianza y responsabilidad. El autor indagó en diferentes fuentes para así desarrollar enteramente su visión de la historia de los dos ríos involucrados, desde el periodismo y diferentes documentos hasta obras académicas relacionadas con la región. ABSTRACT This current paper focuses on the transformation of the Colorado River Delta since 1940. Instead of just considering the ecological problems of the region as an exclusive domain of the two countries that share it, the author seeks to maintain a more holistic approach to the situation, which involves not only the governments of the United States and Mexico, but also takes into account the historical role of the Native groups in the Delta, especially on issues of mistrust and blame. The author followed different sources to fully develop its vision of the history of the two rivers involve, from journalism and different documents to other scholarly works related to the region.

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Ward, E. (2017). Two Rivers, Two Nations, One History: The Transformation of the ColoradoRiver Delta Since 1940. Frontera Norte, 11(22), 113–140.


Mr. Ward would like to thank the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia, Athens, for generous support that allowed him to carry out research for this paper. Dra. María Eugenia Anguiano Téllez (COLEF), Drs. Lester Langley, Catherine Pringle, and Emory Thomas (all from the University of Georgia, Athens), Dr. Stuart Hurlbert (San Diego State University), and the dictaminadoresoffered encouragement and helpful critiques. The paper contains several paragraphs from Evan Ward, “Saline Solutions: Arizona Water Politics, Mexican-American Relations, and the Wellton-Mohawk Valley,” Journal of Arizona History, Autumn 1999, 267-292.

* Professor, Department of History, LeConte Hall, University of Georgia, Athens, GA. E-mail:

Antonio González de León, “Factores de tensión internacional en la frontera,” in La Frontera del norte: integración y desarrollo, Roque González Salazar, editor, (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1981) 24. Evan Ward has made all translations in this paper.

Frank Clifford, “Plotting a Revival in a Delta Gone to Dust,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1997, A-1;Steve Yozwiak, “Two Waterways ‘Endangered’; Pinto on Roster Third Year, Colorado’s Delta is Added,” The Arizona Republic, April 6, 1998, B-1;Stan Grossfeld, “A River Runs Dry; A People Wither; Their Water Taken, Mexico’s Cocopah Cling to Arid Homeland,” The Boston Globe, September 21, 1997, A-1.

The New River is not the only river that feeds the Salton Sea. In fact, the Alamo River contributes 600,000 acre feet of water per year to the Salton Sea while the New River only contributes 475,000. The Whitewater River and various other minor streams contribute in excess of 250,000 acre-feet of water per year. This paper looks specifically at the role of the New River in the region’s ecosystem because of its extreme levels of pollution and its direct threat to sizeable human, animal, and plant communities in the Delta. See “Alternative Futures for the Salton Sea,” UC MEXUS Border Water Project, Issue Paper Number 1, (Riverside, CA: The University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States, 1999), 8-9.

John Dillin, “Pollution Seeps From Mexico to U.S.,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 1989, 6; U.S. Newswire, “New River Named One of Nation’s Most Threatened Rivers,” April 16, 1997; Newsweek, “In Health There are No Borders,” August 1, 1988, 47; Steve LaRue, “Taking the Initiative: The New River Cleanup,” The San Diego Union Tribune, December 26, 1992, A-1.

Nevertheless, a good number of Mexican historians, as well as a smaller group of American scholars , have produced impressive histories of the Delta, written from the regional perspective, that chronicle intensive regional developments and ecological change. These studies are enumerated in footnote 10.

Norris Hundley discusses the salinity crisis as an extension of the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 in Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy between the United States and Mexico(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), pp. 173-181. Philip Fradkin focuses on the environmental and international ramification of the crisis in A River No More: The Colorado Riverand the West(Nuew York: Knopf, 1981), pp. 291-318. Fradkin provides an excellent analysis of the political importance of the crisis in Mexico. Leon Metz deals with the environmental aspects of the crisis and underscores Carl Hayden’s relectance to help Mexico in Border: The U.S.-Mexican Line(El Paso: Magnan Books, 1989), pp. 272-290. Dale Furnish and Jerry Landam provide the best study of the Mexicali area prior to and during the crisis in “El Convenio de 1973 sobre la salinidad del río Colorado y el Valle de Mexicali”, in Revista de la Facultad, tomo XXV, January 1975, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, pp. 103-129. They trace the agricultural development of the region and the ecological impact of salinity on the fields. Maximiliano Cervantes Ramírez and Francisco A. Bernal Rodríguez priovide a broad scientific overview of the salinity crisis in “Comportamiento de la salinidad en el agua del río Colorado”, in Manejo ambientalmente adecuado del agua: la frontera México-Estados Unidos, José Trava Manzanilla, Jesús Román Calleros and Francisco A. Bernal Rodríguez (Tijuana: El Colef, 1991), pp. 129-134.

This study is theoretically based on a discussion of the interaction between ecosystems and human societies presented in A. Terry Rambo, Conceptual Approaches to Human Ecology, Research Report Number 14, East-West Environment and Policy Institute (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1983), 23-29. The mathematical concepts of complexity and chaos theory have also been applied in examining the interactions between numerous human and environmental variables within the Colorado River Basin system. Robert Jervis discusses these phenomena in a social science context in Complexity in Political and Social Life(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997). As the salinity crisis of the 1960s and 70s illustrates, apparently small changes within the system – i.e. the addition of excess salts from the Wellton-Mohawk Valley to the Colorado River – can trigger disproportionately larger environmental, economic, and diplomatic changes in the system. In terms of methodology, the author has followed the wisdom of Oscar J. Martínez’s Troublesome Border(Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988), and examined how the international boundary has impacted the various communities on both sides of the border, particularly in terms of their use of the Colorado River. As Martínez notes in Troublesome Border, “Fundamentally it is the border itself that acts as the agent of friction, given that it obstructs the normal movement of people and products” (6). State and national archives, water user’s organizations, and diplomatic documents from both sides of the border provided the evidence necessary to construct the model presented here.

I have emphasized the word “immediate” because from a broader perspective, intensified use of the Colorado River throughout the entire river basin during the 1950s and 60s contributed to the river’s salinity by the time it reached the Delta region.

Historians on both sides of the border have analyzed and recounted the development of the Delta prior to 1940. María Eugenia Anguiano Téllez’s Agricultura y migración en el valle de Mexicali(Tijuana: COLEF, 1995), offers the most conclusive study of the growth of agribusiness in Mexicali Valley and its strong ties to American capital. Other studies that discuss the development of Mexicali Valley include Adalberto Walther Meade, El valle de Mexicali(Mexicali, B.C..: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 1996); Pablo Herrera Carrillo, Colonización del valle de Mexicali(Mexicali, B.C.: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 1976) Pablo L. Martínez, Historia de Baja California(México: Consejo Editorial del Gobierno del Estado de B.C.S., 1991); Fernando Jordán, El otro México: biografía de Baja California(México D.F.: Secretaria de Educación Pública, Frontera, 1976); Mexicali: una historia, tomos 1-2 (Mexicali, B.C.: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 1991); Donald Worster discusses developments in the Imperial Valley, California, in Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West(New York: Pantheon, 1985), 194-212; Norris Hundley, also traces the development of the Imperial Valley within the context of California water issues in Great Thirst : Californians and Water, 1770s-1990s(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); The creation of water policy and the growth of agribusiness in Yuma County, Arizona, are treated in Evan Ward, “Crossroads on the Periphery: Yuma County Water Relations, 1922-1928,” unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, Athens, 1997.

Norris Hundley discusses the legal division of the Colorado River amongst seven states in the United States in Water and the West: The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); In an earlier monograph, Dividing the Waters (1966), Hundley examines the background and diplomatic efforts behind the Mexican Water Treaty (1945), which provided Mexico with 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River. Together, these two treaties comprise the most important facets of the “Law of the River,” or the legal divisions of the Colorado River amongst its political constituents. Marco Antonio de la Fuente discusses the legal ramifications of these treaties within the broader context of Mexican-American relations in “Examen jurídico de algunos problemas de aguas y límites entre México y los E.U.,” Análisis de algunos problemas fronterizos y bilaterales entre México y Estados Unidos, Víctor Carlos García Moreno, compilador (México D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1982), 59-102; Also see Albert E. Utton, “Ley de aguas superficiales en los Estados Unidos,” in Trava Manzanilla, et. al., 35-52.

In a letter to Baja California Governor Rafael Navarro Cortina, Cárdenas elaborated further on his plans to utilize water in the Delta: “It is important to take into consideration that the greater the land that we place under cultivation, we will be in conditions to assure for Mexico a greater volume of water from the storage that the United States is making with waters from the Colorado River.” See Cárdenas to Navarro Cortina, January 20, 1937, AGN, RG Lázaro Cárdenas, 437.1/413.

Farmer, “Testimony,” Arizona Commission of the Colorado River Basin States, June 22-23, 1938, Phoenix, Arizona, 42-43, Arizona Department of Libraries, Archives, and Public Records (ADLAPR), Research Library, Phoenix, Arizona.

Letter from E. Aguirre Camacho to President Avila Camacho, no date, AGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2.

Telegram from Governor Crel r. Sánchez Taboada to J. Jesús GonzálezGallo, October 29, 1941, AAGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11.

Ezequiel Padilla, “Condiciones en que se encuentran las plantas de bombeo para regar las tierras ribereñas del río Colorado, B.C.,” Departamento Jurídico y Consultativo, Oficina de Límites y Aguas, August 24, 1942, AGN, RG Ávila Camacho, 561.3/11-1; Letter from Henry Frauenfelder to Lawrence M. Lawson, June 22, 1944, Yuma County Water Users Association Archives, Yuma, Arizona.

See Padilla.

Telegram from Armando Lizarraga to Ávila Camacho, April 8, 1943; Telegram from Sanchez Taboada to Ávila Camacho, April 12, 1943; Telegram from Sánchez Taboada to Ávila Camacho, April 15, 1943; Telegram from Distribuidora del Pacífico, S. A. to Ávila Camacho, April 30, 1943; Telegram from Sánchez Taboada to Ávila Camacho, April 30, 1943. All of these telegrams are located at the AGN in RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2.

U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1943, volume 6, (Washington: GPO, 1965), 611-613.

Ibid., 614-615; Telegram from Taboada to President Avila Camacho, June 16, 1943, AGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2; Telegram from Governor Rodolfo Taboada to President Avila Camacho, November 17, 1943, AGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2.

Despite the Cárdenas revolution that expropriated hundreds of thousands of hectares in Mexicali valley, land was useless without the water to irrigate it. As mentioned above, control of the water works remained in U.S. hands (the Imperial Irrigation District’s subsidiary company, La Compañía de Terrenos y Aguas). Governor Sanchez Taboada recognized that this meant, “the farmers of Mexicali Valley are users of the irrigation system of the Imperial Valley.” Governor Sanchez Taboada to J. Jesus Gallo, July 11, 1944, AGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2; Ibid.; On July 4, 1944, Sanchez Taboada informed Avila Camacho that the releases from Boulder and Parker Dam had been decreased considerably. Mexicans were again prohibited from building a temporary dam below Alamo Canal. See AGN, RG Avila Camacho, 561.3/11-2.

See Hundley, Dividing the Waters; During Senate Hearings on the Mexican Water Treaty Arizona State Attorney Charles Carson stated, “Our engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation are now making surveys and investigations in Arizona for the utilization of Arizona’s share of this water, and it is very important to us to know the extent of Mexican requirements in order that we may plan sound projects and run no risk of overexpansion, later to be reduced by the Mexican demands. That is one of the reasons that Arizona is taking the position she is here.(emphasis mine)” See Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 79th Congress, 1st Session, 271.

Adolfo Orive Alba, “Address of Engineer Adolfo Orive Alba, Secretary of Hydraulic Resources upon the Inauguration of the ‘Morelos Dam,’ September 23,1950,” RG Governor’s Office, Box 45, ADLAPR, Archives Division.

M. Pérez Espinoza, “Estudio Agrológico Preliminar del Distrito de Riego del río Colorado,” Ingeniería hidráulica en México, October-November-December 1958, 89; Federico Ibarra Muñóz, “Rehabilitación del Distrito de Riego No. 14 Río Colorado, B.C.,” publisher unknown, n.d., 9, Archivo Histórico del Agua (AHA), México D.F., México.

Minutes from 20 April 1955 Meeting between General Government Secretary and Mexicali Interest Groups, AGN, RG Ruiz Cortines, 404.2/296.

Letter from Mexicali and San Luis Valley representatives to President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, April 22, 1955, AGN, RG Lopez Mateos, 404.1/502, 6.

Lenora Werley, “U.S. Takes Sudden Interest in Mexicali Water,” The Arizona Daily Star, Sunday, December 17, 1961. Carl Hayden Collection, MS 1, Box 253, Folder 8; Ibid., Translated this phrase reads, “Arizona – You have the word.”

Carl Hayden, “Remarks by Senator Carl Hayden, April 26, 1962, concerning complaints by Mexico on quality of Colorado River Water,” Carl Hayden Collection, MS 1, Box 293, Folder 4, page 1; Telegram from Carl Hayden to Dean Rusk, December 20, 1961, Carl Hayden Collection, MS 1.

“Problema de la salinidad creado por la calidad de las aguas, que Estados Unidos entrega a México conforme al Tratado de 1944, AHA, RG Consultativo Técnico, 13/61, 10.

Ibid., 15.

Memo from W. S. Gookin, December 7, 1963, Carl Hayden Collection, MSS 1, Box 708, Folder 6.

Confidential Memo, Carl Hayden Collection, MSS1, Box 333, Folder 18.

In 1965, the United States agreed to the conditions of Minute 218, an arrangement drawn up between the United States and Mexico to resolve the salinity crisis. According to the agreement, the United States agreed to construct a thirteen-mile drainage bypass to carry run-off water to a location below Morelos Dam. An alternative solution would have required the United States to install tile drains to improve the recovery of saline waters from Wellton-Mohawk Valley fields. Mexican officials opted for the bypass because it allowed them to either accept or reject water from the affected valley. For a Mexican perspective on the salinity crisis, including Minute 218, see Luis Cabrera, La salinidad del río Colorado: una diferencia internacional (México D.F.: Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, 1975); Fradkin, 308; Metz, 281-283.

Metz, 281-283; Fradkin, 315.

For an in-depth discussion of groundwater conflicts and issues along the border region, see Stephen P. Mumme, Apportioning Groundwater Beneath the U.S.-Mexico Border: Obstacles and Alternatives, Research Report Series, 45, (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego, 1988); Edward P. Glenn, Richard S. Felger, Alberto Burquez, Dale S. Turner, “Cieñega de Santa Clara: Endangered Wetland in the Colorado River Delta, Sonora, Mexico,” Natural Resources Journal, Fall 1992, volume 32, 817-824.

For a broad overview of the maquiladoraprogram see Leslie Sklair, Assembling for Development: The Maquila Industry in Mexico and the United States(Winschester, Mass.: Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1989); Susan Tiano offers a gender-based interpretation of the maquila complex in Mexicali in Patriarchy on the Line: Labor, Gender, and Ideology in the Mexican Maquila Industry(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Raúl A. Fernández analyzes the maquila complex from a Marxist perpsective in La frontera México-Estados Unidos: un estudio socioeconómico(México D.F.: Terra Nova, 1980), 149-168.

Paul Ganster, “Environmental Issues of the California-Baja California Border Region,” Border Environment Research Reports, Number 1, June 1996, Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, www civil utah edu/scerp/docs/ berr1.html, October 15, 1998; “U.S. Mexico Border XXI, Frontera XXI,” Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8, Dallas, TX, http://www.134.67.55. 16:7777/R9/MexUSA…a387d882563e1005dedaa?OpenDocument, November 6, 1998; Yuma County and Imperial County statistics from U.S. Bureau of the Census, USA Counties, 1996, CD-ROM.

Antonio González de León, “Factores de tensión internacional en la frontera,” in González Salazar, editor, 15.

Michael Riley, “Dead Cats, Toxins, and Typhoid: Clean-up Time for the New River, an International Irritant,” Time, April 20, 1987, 68; Ibid.; Ted Pauw, “New Pollution in Mexico (NEW),” American University Case Study No. 142,, October 15, 1998.

Steve LaRue, “Taking the Initiative: The New River Cleanup,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 26, 1992, A-1.

Larry B. Stammer, “Pipe Break Sends Raw Sewage Into Salton Sea,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1985, Part 1, 3.

See David DeVoss, “How the Bugs Finally Won,” Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1987, Magazine, 18.

Robert H. Boyle, “Life — or death — for the Salton Sea? Large Polluted California Lake has Increasing Salinity and Pollution,” Smithsonian, June 1996, volume 27, number 3, 86; United States Bureau of Reclamation, “The Source, Transport, and Fate of Selenium and other Contaminants in Hydrological and Biological Cycles of the Salton Sea Area,” USBR Salton Sea Study, February 1998,, October 15, 1998.

Frank Graham Jr., “Midnight at the Oasis,” Audubon, May 1998, volume 100, number 3, 82-89.

Saving the Salton Sea: A Research Needs Assessment, Appendix B, “Deterioration of the Salton Sea: (Ten Year Chronology of Events and Actions Taken),” http://www.sci.sdsu. edu/salton/deterioration_salton_sea.htm, October 15, 1998.

Steve LaRue, “In But Not Out,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 1, 1998, E-1; United States Bureau of Reclamation, Salton Sea: Challenges and Opportunities, Chapter 2, “Problem Definition,”, October 15, 1998, 12-13; Boyle.

Tony Perry, “After 50 Years, New Hope for Detoxifying New River,” Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1995, A-1.

Defenders of Wildlife, “Salton Sea Position Statement: ‘The Ecological Realities of the Salton Sea,’” August 1998, http://www sci sdsu edu/salton/DOWPositionSaltonSea.html, October 15, 1998; Ganster, emphasis added; Marco Antonio Alcazar Ávila, “El papel del agua como frontera entre México y los Estados Unidos de Nórteamerica,” in Ingeniería hidráulica en México, January-April 1989, 19-29.

John Gavin as quoted in Patricia Nelson Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 346.

Unfortunately, historic patterns of mistrust still prevail on some issues related to water apportionment in the region. Control of water from the delta’s aquifers currently represents the most controversial aspect of natural resource exploitation in regional relations. The plan to line the All-American Canal serves as the latest manifestation of that controversy. Jesús Román Calleros explores this issue within the context of diplomatic minute 242 (the agreement on the salinity crisis) in “El Acta 242: revestimiento del canal All-American. Una nueva diferencia international, México-Estados Unidos,” in Trava Manzanilla, 97-128. It is hoped that participants on both sides of the border will recognize the bi-national consequences of their unilateral actions. Unfortunately, secrecy has frequently obscured (and discouraged) the process of negotiation and dialogue between regional and national leaders on issues affecting the entire region. For example, the USBR noted in its final decision on the lining project for the All-American Canal that the United States section of the International Boundary and Water Commission “counseled Reclamation regarding the diplomatic sensitivities of the issues involved, and advised Reclamation to limit dissemination of information regarding Project impacts to Mexico to avoid jeopardizing the consultation and diplomatic relations with Mexico.” See USBR, “Record of Decision for Final Environmental Impact Statement/Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIS/FEIR) for All-American Canal Lining Project (Project), Imperial Valley, Imperial County, California,” May 1994, 8. While it is recognized that diplomatic dealings demand a certain degree of secrecy, an unwillingness to communicate openly on critical environmental issues in the Delta region may erase any other sense of goodwill developed between the region’s inhabitants.