473. Telegram 718 From the Embassy in Mexico to the Department of State1 2

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  • Salinity of the Colorado River

1. Summary—At relaxed and friendly luncheon at Ambassador’s residence February 10, Foreign Secretary Rabasa and colleagues made impassioned pitch for settlement of salinity issue in time for Echeverria’s meeting with President Nixon in Washington in June. Rabasa took very hard-line approach on this issue, asserting Mexico’s need to receive water of comparable quality to that received by last US users north of the border, failing which Mexico should seek third party adjudication of Mexico’s rights. End summary.

2. Luncheon was held at Foreign Secretary Rabasa’s initiative in order to give visiting Country Director for Mexico Stevenson full exposure to Mexico’s views on salinity. In addition to Rabasa, Ambassador and Stevenson, also present were Ambassador to United States De Olloqui, Director General of International Boundaries and Waters Luis Cabrera and Embassy Political Counselor Matthews. Presentation by Mexican side was well prepared and Olloqui and Cabrera interceded from time to time to support Rabasa’s arguments. Mexican position was most extreme that we have yet heard, including assertion [Page 2] that Mexico had a right to receive water directly from Imperial Dam despite our repeatedly pointing out that for centuries international practice sustained principle that each user further down the river should expect to receive poorer water than those above.

3. Rabasa repeatedly referred to fact that Colorado River belonged to both Mexico and United States and that there were not simply seven US riparian users but eight including Mexico. He said that salinity problem was number one issue between United States and Mexico, that it was extremely volatile political problem not just with Mexicali farmers but with all Mexicans, and that it was only by careful influence exercised by President Echeverria that this issue had not been permitted to become even more major irritant in our relations.

4. Rabasa referred to fact that extension of Minute 218 had been carefully arranged with minimal publicity and said that President Echeverria had called Governor of Baja California to urge all possible restraint on citizens of that area. He said GOM was having mounting difficulty in keeping lid on protests over this problem. He said that he personally had recommended to Echeverria that Mexico not accept the package worked out by US/Mexican negotiators last November on basis that it represented only “peanuts” for Mexican farmers. He said that it was one thing for administration which had already dealt with problem to conclude a new agreement representing only minor improvement, and quite another for a new President to conclude a similar agreement binding on his administration for the entire length of its tenure.

5. Rabasa and colleagues repeatedly referred to incomprehension of Mexicali farmer on one side of border receiving water with 400 ppm of salinity greater than his neighbor immediately to the north. They grudgingly accepted fact that Mexicali farmer might receive slightly higher salinity than his [Page 3] northern neighbor but said that US proposals were no where near satisfactory in reducing the gap. Rabasa said that ironically if US territorial ambitions to acquire Baja California had succeeded, the farmers of that area would be receiving water comparable to that received by US farmers in California and Arizona.

6. When we probed Cabrera hard on question of what Mexico wanted and did not want, it appeared that Mexico wanted water of about 1,000 ppm, that Mexico objected not only to Wellton-Mohawk drainage but also to south Yuma waters and any other waters below Imperial Dam that increased the salinity of the Colorado River. The Mexicans once again asserted that Wellton-Mohawk and Yuma Mesa pumped waters were not part of the Colorado River system in terms of the treaty.

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7. Rabasa characterized our proposed immediate solution as an insignificant improvement and said that our longer range plans to control salinity above Imperial Dam and the natural improvement of Wellton Mohawk drainage waters were only of interest to future Mexican administrations. He said an immediate improvement was necessary to meet the political pressure of Mexicali farmers and to give Mexico its long overdue rights.

8. Rabasa and De Olloqui made a point of linking President Echeverria’s visit to Washington to a solution of the salinity problem. They inferred that Mexican people would expect that this long-standing issue would be resolved by formal announcement at time of meeting between two Presidents. Rabasa said that influential Mexicans were urging that Mexico take salinity to the world court even if that body required three or more years to reach a decision. Rabasa said he personally believed these people were wrong, but that if a settlement were not reached by the time of Echeverria’s visit to Washington, the GOM would have to consider much more seriously third party arbitration. In any event he said issue would have to be resolved before Nov. He said that even if third party decision went against Mexico (which he strongly doubted), GOM could resolve its [Page 5] political problem by laying the blame for poor water on this third party resolution.

9. For our part we tried to avoid a fruitless exchange of polemics, but we did point out political difficulties of persuading US users to go beyond our present proposals. We urged again that Mexico examine with us what damage had occurred in Mexicali Valley and tried to focus issue on question of what is usable water under the treaty. Rabasa countered that he could get tomorrow from Secretary of Hydraulic Resources Rovirosa Wade fifty studies detailing reduced yields and damage to crops in Mexicali Valley but that US could come up with equal studies showing not damage; he therefore thought such technical studies were useless.

10. Ambassador De Olloqui took an even more advanced position than the Foreign Secretary with allusions to the role of Mexican/Americans in our coming elections and to the fact that we were spending billions to resolve the issue of Viet-Nam but could not devote relatively minor resources to settle an issue with our friendly neighbor whose interests were being grievously damaged and whose rights were being ignored.

11. Comment: This seemed to us a calculated hardline approach taken by the Mexicans. Rabasa said he wished to put forth Mexican views at length because he felt that people in the State Department finally understood Mexico’s problems. Our assessment is that the Mexicans believe that they can drive a hard bargain with us and they have to some extent seized on the Echeverria visit to Washington as a lever of time and circumstance to use upon us. Stevenson will be discussing this issue on an urgent basis on his return to Washington.

12. As a postscript, Embassy has just received under cover of Foreign Secretary Rabasa’s personal [Page 6] card, addressed to Stevenson, a packet of clippings from this mornings press concerning statements by Senator Mansfield on his arrival and editorials concerning President Nixon’s report to the Congress on the state of the world. In these clippings, Mansfield is quoted as saying that the United States is being too slow in taking measures to resolve the problem of salinity. The editorials in varying tones according to the outlook of the newspaper take President Nixon’s report to task for stating that the relations between Mexico and the United States are a model for the world and its implication that the salinity problem has been resolved. Excerpts from these editorials dealing specifically with the salinity problem including one in the official El Nacional were marked in red by the Foreign Secretariat.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 33–1 MEX–US. Confidential; Limdis. In telegram 31524 to Mexico City, February 24, the Department was “not sanguine re possibility settlement salinity problem by time Echeverría visit unless Rabasa proves much more realistic in understanding U.S. position and practical possibilities open to us.” (Ibid.)
  2. During a lunch meeting at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, Foreign Minister Rabasa made an “impassioned pitch” for settlement of salinity issue before the Echeverría-Nixon meeting in June.