210. Telegram 504 from Mexico City, August 211

[Facsimile Page 1]

Dept Pass IBWC El Paso. For Martin from Mann.

Urgent and important decisions are necessary concerning the salt water problem which continues to be the number one issue in our relations with Mexico. I consider this problem of such high priority, and the risks and consequences of further delay in reaching decisions so great, that I believe this telegram merits the personal attention of the President and the Secretary.

The salinity issue has not yet reached crisis proportions in Mexico, despite strong pressures on the government from various sectors, including the 300,000 people whose livelihood depends on the Mexicali Valley, only because the government has up to this time decided to down-play this problem. However, Mexico interprets the statement on salinity in the joint Presidential communiqué of June 30, 1962—“They expressed their determination, with the scientific studies as a basis, to reach a permanent and effective solution at the earliest possible time [Typeset Page 503] with the aim of preventing the recurrence of this problem after October, 1963”—as an undertaking on our part to come forward with a satisfactory solution before the end of October 1963.

If we cannot negotiate successfully with Mexico in the next two months on the basis of concrete plans on our side for a “permanent and effective solution” we should expect Mexico to move toward actions which can only be harmful to our national interests. I believe Mexico would, sooner or later, file [Facsimile Page 2] suit in the World Court or encourage a class suit for injunction in one of our Federal Courts, or raise the issue of rights of a lower riparian state in the OAS or the UN, or simultaneously follow two or more of these routes. I doubt that Mexico has made final decisions about the action it will take, and it is not improbable it might defer decision until November or December. By that time it will be clear to Mexico that this winter’s salinity levels (predicted at about 2,000 parts per million throughout the winter) will be higher than they were last winter and Mexico must decide whether to waste the water with all that this implies for the winter wheat crop or to use it with the consequent additional salt damage to the soil. Moreover, by that time a decision will also have been made on the Nobel Peace Prize, with reference to which Mexico has been reluctant to become involved in international disputes because of the effect this might have on its campaign to obtain the peace prize for Lopez Mateos.

If the salinity issue is taken to court by Mexico it seems to me probable that the decision would be against us, and even possible that it would be adverse to a degree which could permanently prejudice the present rights of United States users of Colorado River waters. I assume that it was this possibility of a court decision far more damaging to American users of Colorado River Waters than a negotiated settlement which prompted six of the seven Colorado River Basin States to recommend a by-pass channel through which the most highly saline Wellton-Mohawk waters could be wasted. And even in the unlikely event a court should sustain our position, the price we would pay would be confirmation of Mexico’s right to send into the Rio Grande highly saline waters which would seriously damage US farmers in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Moreover, if Mexico is forced to take action against us the wraps presently held around Mexican press coverage will be taken off, the people will learn of the facts in this issue, and unnecessary damage will be done to our relations with the government and people of Mexico. Communists and opportunists will take every advantage of this opportunity to attack us on legal and moral grounds, [Facsimile Page 3] raising issues on which they will be joined by many other Mexicans, even those who are anti-communist and normally friendly to us. Indeed, since the salinity issue could come to a head precisely at the time the Lopez Mateos administra[Typeset Page 504]tion selects the next Presidential candidate, it is even possible that a wave of anti-United States feeling, stemming from our inaction and apparent indifference, could cause the selection of a leftist candidate deemed capable of standing up to the United States in defense of Mexico’s rights. I need hardly say that the implications of such a selection could be far reaching.

We should face up to the fact that the Wellton-Mohawk salinity problem was not created by an act of God. It was deliberately created by us on the theory that because the 1944 Colorado Water Treaty is silent on the issue of quality, the United States had no obligation to use reasonable care to avoid unnecessary injury to a lower riparian user. According to this theory, we are, in consequence, free to dump on the Mexicali Valley over an estimated 20 year period the highly saline Wellton-Mohawk underground lake and gradually to replace those underground waters with water of a better quality from the Imperial Dam so that the Wellton Mohawk could have a usable underground reserve supply available for its crops in addition to its allotted share of river water. The fact is that the Wellton-Mohawk is pumping out and sending down to Mexico nearly four times as much salt as would normally be required for successful irrigation operations. There is no way to disguise this hard fact or the additional fact that gradually but inevitably the productivity of the soil of the Mexicali Valley will be seriously impaired if the water is used.

The only remedial action which the Mexicali Valley could take, if it used the water, would be further to substantially reduce the [Facsimile Page 4] number of acres in cultivation so as to be able, by applying more water per acre than is normally required, to wash the added salt through the root zone. And even if this were politically and economically feasible to do in this heavily populated valley (which I doubt) there could be no assurance that salt would not continue to accumulate to the detriment of productivity in at least a part of the smaller acreage cultivated. Mexico has a shortage of arable land as well as water. It is not an overstatement to say that the Mexicali Valley is as important to Mexicans as the Imperial Valley is to us.

We have the opportunity now to reduce these risks by negotiating settlement with Mexico based on the concept of approximate salt balance. This can be achieved either by wasting the poorest quality waters of the Wellton Mohawk District or going over to a system of tile drains such as are used in the Imperial and other valleys. We will not have this same choice nor the initiative once we are waist deep in a crisis situation.

  1. Salinity problem on lower Colorado River. Confidential. 4 pp. DOS, CF, POL 33–1 MEX–US.