The Secretary of the Interior ( Ickes ) to President Roosevelt

My Dear Mr. President: The natural resources of the United States in the great basins of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande would be affected considerably by the recent treaty with Mexico85 which is [Page 1360] now pending ratification by the Senate. As you know, the treaty which you transmitted to the Senate on February 15 relates to the utilization of the waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.

I cannot make informed comment on the adequacy of the consideration running to the United States in this international deal in waters. Aside from the general aspects of our “good neighbor” policy, I do not know what specific factors in our relations with Mexico justify the treaty. Those factors must be of great weight, for certainly the treaty is magnanimous on our part. On the Colorado River, we guarantee to Mexico about twice as much water as she ever was able to use before the Department of the Interior built and operated Boulder and thereby evened out the flow of that river between the flood and dry seasons. Yet the treaty does not make any charge to Mexico for the Boulder storage which under the treaty will be used for Mexico’s benefit. We also agree to build Davis Dam below Boulder entirely at our expense and without charge to Mexico to operate it partially to service deliveries to Mexico.

On the Rio Grande, however, we get a comparatively modest amount of water apportioned to us; and we agree to pay a substantial part of the cost of necessary storage and regulating works. We swap some Colorado River water for some Rio Grande water. Mexico pays nothing toward storage of the Colorado River water, while we pay something for storage of the Rio Grande water.

More importantly, what this treaty deals in is not products of the United States. It deals in a natural resource of the United States, with what we must conservatively use in order to produce. In the Colorado River Basin (California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming) water is the prime natural resource. An acre of land out there is no good agriculturally without several acre feet of water. Opportunities out there for homestead farming by returning servicemen and demobilized industrial workers depend on more acre feet of water being conserved and used on more arid land.

California is building up to a loud and perhaps bitter fight on this treaty because, as she sees it, water is being taken from California and given to Mexico in return for Mexico providing some Rio Grande water for Texas.

I am not prepared to state precisely what the probable benefits and burdens of the United States regarding water supplies will be under the treaty. The treaty was made public on February 15. The Bureau of Reclamation has been analyzing it and by early April will be prepared to give pertinent technical information. The Bureau undoubtedly will be called on for factual and technical information, in connection with the Senate’s consideration of the treaty. And although [Page 1361] the Bureau will confine its presentations to those that are factual and technical, what it presents probably will be used, fairly or unfairly, in opposition to ratification. Incidentally, some of the technical arrangements for diversion and delivery of Colorado River water to Mexico reflect, upon analysis, a lack of understanding of the complicated engineering and legal arrangements governing the reclamation works of the Yuma and All-American Canal projects,86 works that will be used to service deliveries to Mexico.

The treaty’s provisions for administration and organization have a heavy impact on the existing functions and duties of this Department. The treaty, requiring ratification of only the Senate, establishes the U. S. Section87 as a new internal bureau of government for the exclusive exercise of numerous and diverse functions relating to flood control, irrigation, stream measurement and other matters wholly within the interior of the United States, including several functions heretofore, normal to, and performed by, existing domestic agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation, the Geological Survey and the Corps of Engineers, United States Army. It vests in the U. S. Section exclusive jurisdiction and control of the works constructed, acquired or used to the extent necessary to effectuate the provisions of the treaty. The treaty repeals by implication a substantial part of the jurisdiction and control of this Department over the Boulder Canyon project, the Davis Dam, Parker Dam, All-American Canal projects on the Colorado River, and the Rio Grande project in New Mexico and Texas.88 The ability of the Department of the Interior to perform the functions and to carry out the duties long vested in it by acts of Congress will be rendered at least somewhat vague and uncertain, and this Department will find performance, on its part, of its existing contracts for water and power somewhat awkward and difficult, if not to an extent impossible.

The United States Section of the Commission, which the treaty permanently establishes, will be given broad discretion in the administration of water resources and the planning of projects in the Interior of the United States, answerable only to the Department of State. Requests for appropriations to finance its activities will have in their [Page 1362] support the pressure of international treaty obligations. Any attempt, legislatively, to modify the domestic functioning of the United States Section will meet the barrier that such legislative modification would violate a treaty with a foreign power.

I believe that you would want my views on this treaty, for although it is a matter of foreign affairs, the stuff with which it deals is the disposition and administration of water resources in the west.

Sincerely yours,

Harold L. Ickes
  1. For statement released to the press February 4, 1944, regarding this treaty, see Department of State Bulletin, February 5, 1944, p. 161. For maps and a more detailed description of the treaty, see ibid., March 25, 1944, pp. 282–292.
  2. The Yuma project irrigated an area of Arizona approximately 25 miles in length extending from a point northeast of Yuma, southwest through Yuma, to the Mexican border. The All-American Canal was built by the Department of the Interior pursuant to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 (45 Stat. 1057) to connect the fertile Imperial Valley of southern California with the Colorado River above Yuma at Imperial Dam.
  3. United States section of the International Boundary Commission, United States and Mexico. For a brief history of this Commission, created in 1889 and organized in 1894, see Charles A. Timm, “United States-Mexican Public Commissions,” Mexico and the United States, published by the Institute of Public Affairs, 1938.
  4. The Valley Gravity and Storage Project, Texas, known also as Federal Project No. 5, proposed for the purpose of irrigation of United States land in the lower Rio Grande Valley.