State might partner with Mexico

If Mexico begins harvesting drinking water from the sea some day, Nevada also might get a taste.

Talks are progressing among officials from both sides of the border over new joint efforts to squeeze more water out of the arid region.

One idea being discussed is U.S. investment in Mexican desalination plants along the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California.

The jointly funded plants would supply drinking water to growing coastal communities south of the border and thirsty U.S. cities, including Las Vegas.

Mexico might be the new frontier for the seven Western states that share the drought-stricken Colorado River, said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Early this week, Mulroy traveled to San Diego for two days of talks with state and federal officials from both countries.

She said "jointly funded desalt projects in Mexico" are only one element of the discussions. Nevada might find additional opportunities to partner with Mexico on conservation initiatives, such as lining leaky irrigation canals south of the border to save water diverted from the Colorado.

Mexican officials also are interested in cooperating to protect the delta wetlands where the diminished river trickles into the Gulf of California.

"This administration has a huge environmental agenda," Mulroy said, referring not to the Obama White House but to the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Desalination holds the most promise for Nevada.

For example, if Mexican officials built a desalination plant for the growing city of Rosarito, south of Tijuana, the Southern Nevada Water Authority could buy a piece of that plant in exchange for a portion of Mexico's allocation of Colorado River water, Mulroy said.

Water wholesalers in Phoenix and Los Angeles could strike similar deals, she said.

The major problem with the arrangement, however, is it works only if the Colorado River has enough water to allow an exchange.

"If there's nothing in the river, there's nothing to swap," Mulroy said.

The cross-border water talks were convened in March 2008 by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a bilateral panel that administers the boundary and water treaties between the two nations.

Representatives have been meeting every other month or so to discuss the development of new water resources, the conservation of existing resources, and related operational and environmental issues.

The discussions were dealt a blow in September when the boundary and water commission's top two men, U.S. commissioner Carlos Marin and Mexican commissioner Arturo Herrera, were killed in a plane crash.

This week's meeting was the second for Mulroy, who joined the talks for the first time earlier this year.

She said the meeting held Tuesday and Wednesday in San Diego included officials from the U.S. departments of State and Interior, their Mexican counterparts, and representatives from the seven western states that share the Colorado River.

The boundary and water commission and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja also were represented, she said.

Under a 1944 treaty, Mexico receives 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River. That's five times more than Nevada's share, but only about one third of what California gets and about half of what Arizona receives.

There is no set schedule or deadline for the talks, but everyone involved is hoping for meaningful progress "sooner rather than later," said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the U.S. section of the boundary and water commission.

Ongoing drought on the Colorado is driving the talks.

"We're all assuming the worst. There's a real sense of urgency in the room," Mulroy said.

But there are multiple treaties and a tensely managed international border in play as well, so Mulroy said no one should expect results too quickly.

"It's going to take an enormous amount of work," she said. "We're still a ways away."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.