209. Memorandum from Edwin Martin to Chayes, June 201

[Facsimile Page 1]


  • Salinity Problem on Lower Colorado River

The Congress has appropriated $6 million for additional pumps in the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District and the Bureau of Reclamation expects to operate them in a manner which would reduce the salinity of the water delivered to Mexico in the winter time to a peak of approximately 2000 p.p.m. In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation expects to adopt other measures such as a reduction in pumping of approximately 20,000 acre-feet, which will reduce the winter salinities to a peak of 1800 p.p.m. No other measures are foreseen which would reduce the winter salinities below 1800 p.p.m. for the winter of 1963–64. You will recall that Mexico refused to accept any water with a salinity of 1800 p.p.m. during the winters of 1961–62 and 1962–63. We, therefore, have the clear prospect of a serious crisis in our relations with Mexico in October.

In the meeting which you attended at the White House on the salinity problem, the Secretary of the Interior recommended that we adopt whatever measures we can to alleviate the salinity problem without causing any adverse effects on the Wellton-Mohawk district [Typeset Page 501] and await the Mexican Government reaction. This is the course we are now following.

The Secretary of the Interior suggested that if the Mexican reaction was sufficiently strong we might then be able to persuade those opposed to measures which would remedy the problem to agree to such steps as a bypass channel or tile drains in the Wellton-Mohawk district. Neither of these remedial measures could be adopted and have any effect before the winter of 1964–65. The only actions of which we are aware that could avoid a crisis this winter are (1) release of storage water and (2) reduction of pumping in the Wellton-Mohawk district by about 75%.

We have no basis for judging the possible Mexican action in October except by past actions and the statements of both the Mexican Foreign Minister and Mexican Ambassador. Our best estimate is that the Mexican Government would seek to have us take emergency measures to reduce the salinity of the water to an acceptable level. Failing this, Mexico would probably refuse to accept any water this winter and there would be no agricultural production in the Mexicali Valley for this five month period. It is possible that Mexico would seek to minimize the adverse effects by restricting wheat acreage and increasing water applications to compensate for the higher salinities. To the best of our knowledge, however, it [Facsimile Page 2] did not do this in either of the two previous winters. Mexico would probably seek a remedy by court action. The Mexican Foreign Office has retained lawyers for this purpose. The Mexican Government apparently has not decided whether to take the case to the International Court or to a US Federal court. The Mexican Foreign Minister is known to favor bringing the case in the International Court, but may decide a US Federal Court is preferable on the assumption that a decision can be obtained sooner.

Ambassador Mann discussed this possible course of events with the Secretary on June 17. He noted that the Mexican President considers he obtained a commitment from President Kennedy to remedy the situation before October 1963. He expressed concern that a major crisis with Mexico could have the most serious consequences for our relations and could be used by the extreme left to tip the scales in favor of an extreme left candidate for President of Mexico. Ambassador Mann took issue with what seems to be the implicit assumption in our present course of action, i.e., that if we let the issue go to court we will win, or at the very worst, if we lose the decision would not require more extensive remedial measures than mentioned above.

The Secretary requested a brief on the problem which he might use for discussions with the President and Senator Hayden. He desires to take the matter up with the President after the President returns from his European trip. He asked to be informed primarily of the [Typeset Page 502] possible effect on the supply of Colorado River water available to US users if the United States should lose a suit in either the International Court or a US Federal Court. He desires to know:

1. Whether there is a sound legal basis for Interior’s view that the operations at Wellton-Mohawk are in keeping with the 1944 Water Treaty and international law; or, to state it in the reverse, whether Mexico has a strong legal basis for its assertion that the operations are in contravention of the Treaty and international law.

2. Whether the Mexican Government would be able to satisfy the jurisdictional requirements of the International Court or a US Federal Court. If the Mexican Government decides not to subject itself to the jurisdiction of a US Federal Court, would the Mexicali farmers have standing in a Federal Court and what is the likelihood of their success in enjoining the Wellton-Mohawk operations and being awarded damages.

3. What are the possible legal theories which a court might adopt in deciding a case brought by Mexico or the Mexican farmers and what would be the effect on the supply of water available to the Colorado Basin states under each theory.

  1. Salinity problem on lower Colorado River. Confidential. 2 pp. DOS, CF, POL 32–1 MEX–US.