54. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Brownell Report on the Salinity Problem with Mexico

BACKGROUND: The most troublesome issue in U.S.-Mexico relations is the salinity of Colorado River water delivered to Mexico under the 1944 Water Treaty. You discussed this last June with President Echeverria, and promised to seek a “definitive, equitable and just solution” as early as possible. To this end, we promised:

—to pick a special representative to study the problem and make recommendations;

—to complete the study by the end of 1972;

—once a solution had the approval of the Administration, to submit it to Mexico for the latter’s consideration and approval.

Meantime, you ordered interim steps immediately to reduce the salinity differential between U.S. water and that delivered to Mexico. A 25% reduction was achieved in one week.

You selected former Attorney General Herbert Brownell as your special representative. He studied the problem intensively, aided by an interdepartmental task force. He visited the Colorado River Basin States and Mexico, consulting officials and specialists. He submitted his report on December 28. We sent the report to concerned Departments and Agencies for comment and reactions. The Brownell Report is contained in a classified letter to you (Tab A). A longer, releasable report and agency comments are available should you wish to see them.

Main Issues: The main issues considered by Brownell were:

1) the continuing wide gap between the quality of U.S. water and that delivered to Mexico;

2) the need to balance our own growing need for water and our treaty obligations to Mexico;

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3) the likelihood of a huge claim for damages (crop losses, etc.) suffered by Mexico since 1961 (estimates run as high as $144 million) as a result of the poor quality water we have been providing;

4) the adverse impact on U.S.-Mexico relations if this issue is not settled promptly in a fair and friendly way.

CONCLUSIONS: Mr. Brownell and his task force concluded:

1) Reaching a settlement through negotiation rather than in the courts is in our interest.

2) We should seek an early settlement (by mid-1973) while Mexico’s mood is positive.

3) Since no quick solution is possible, we must offer an Interim Solution (1973–78) and a Final Solution (1978 and after).

4) In return, Mexico should renounce all damage claims against us, although this will be difficult; agree to certain other water arrangements; and accept the solution as definitive, just and equitable.

INTERIM SOLUTION: Mr. Brownell recommends:

1) Continue steps now being taken—extra pumping and delivery of additional water from Imperial Dam;

2) Gradually increase quality of water deliveries between now and 1978, providing steadily improving water to Mexico;

3) Relocate and concrete-line part of the Coachella Canal to provide the additional water needed for steps 1 and 2 above. [Estimated cost: $20 million over 3–4 years to be divided 50–50 between the Federal Government and California.]

4) Reduce the effect on salinity of the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation District—the main offender—by increased on-farm efficiency and reduction of acreage.


1) Build a membrane process desalting plant to purify Wellton-Mohawk drainage waters. This would guarantee our ability to provide Mexico indefinitely with good quality water. [Estimated Cost: $42 million over 5 years; 1st year cost (for design) $1–3 million; annual operating cost after 1978—$6 million.]

2) Line extension of Wellton-Mohawk drainage channel to the Gulf of California for brine disposal from desalting plant. [Estimated cost: about $8 million.] This channel might eventually be used in connection with the proposed nuclear desalting plant on the Gulf of California. But the Mexicans may resist any channel across their territory.

RELATED ACTIONS: In addition to the above, Mr. Brownell recommends a number of related actions—including information and technical exchanges on such things as geothermal techniques, nuclear desalting, irrigation practices, etc.

MEXICAN ACTIONS: [Page 182] In return, Mexico should accept the proposal as a “permanent and definitive solution;” waive all damage claims; agree to mutual controls over water pumping along the border; agree to permit disposal of high-saline drainage and brine into the Gulf of California.

CONCURRENCE: The Brownell proposals are concurred in by: the Domestic Council, Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Committee of 14 (representing all the Basin States). Secretary Rogers wishes to deliver an outline of the proposals to the Mexican Government during his visit next weekend.

ALTERNATIVE VIEW: The Department of the Interior, OMB, CEQ and OST concur in the Interim Solution proposed by Mr. Brownell, and they firmly support Mr. Brownell’s objective of achieving a permanent agreement with Mexico on Colorado River water quality. They are concerned, however, about some of the implications of the means recommended by Mr. Brownell for achieving the “permanent solution.” They would prefer deferral of the decision as to the means for permanent solution.

The specific problems raised by OMB to the means recommended by Mr. Brownell are:

1) A federally-funded desalting plant is inconsistent with your water pollution control policies of

(a) controlling pollution (dissolved salts in river waters, in this case) at the source—irrigation operations on farms; and

(b) requiring polluters to bear a part of the costs of pollution control as provided in the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

2) A water quality control precedent would be set that would lend support to a proposed $1 billion program of salinity control in the Colorado River Basin consisting largely of desalting plants built at Federal expense.

3) The desalting plant may not prove to be the least costly way to achieve the desired water salinity levels.

OMB points out that, apart from the international implications, it is not necessary to make a decision on the means of achieving the required water quality right now. They recognize that deferring commitments to the desalting plant would raise opposition from the Basin States, and that support of the Basin States is needed for solution of the problem. The water resource development interests of the States would certainly prefer the approach recommended by Mr. Brownell—environmental interests may not.

CONCLUSIONS: After weighing carefully all pros and cons, I conclude the Brownell plan has the greatest promise of success. It is the only plan with a chance for acceptance by Mexico as being what we [Page 183] promised: “A definitive, equitable and just solution.” The critical element is the support of the seven Basin States. Their backing will be crucial in winning support from Congress, which will be necessary for success. Moving them to this position has been a major breakthrough. The OMB approach would buy time, but we do not have that kind of time to play with. If we go to Mexico with an unacceptable proposal, we will find ourselves soon in international litigation which we will lose. The financial and political losses of such a consequence would be enormous.

Bill Timmons concurs in this recommendation. OMB feels that, while foreign policy interests may be overriding, we should not require the American taxpayer to bear the full costs of controlling pollution caused by Basin State water users, and, on this basis, they oppose the Brownell approach to the permanent solution. OMB recommends that we negotiate only on a water salinity differential between Imperial Dam and Morelos Dam, reserving the selection of means as a subsequent internal decision. OMB recognizes the necessity for Basin State support, and notes that, if the decision is made to accept the Brownell approach, the solution should be presented internally as sui generis in order to avoid establishing a damaging precedent within the U.S.


1. That you approve the recommendations in the Brownell Report and in his letter to you with the inclusion of as many of the recommendations advanced by OMB and Interior as are feasible—especially improving irrigation efficiency at Wellton-Mohawk.

2. That you designate Mr. Brownell as your personal representative to negotiate with Mexico on the basis of his proposals.

3. That you authorize Secretary Rogers to present an outline of the proposal to the Mexican Government during his forthcoming visit to Mexico.

  1. Summary: Kissinger reviewed the proposed resolution to the Colorado River salinity problem offered by the President’s Special Representative, Herbert Brownell. After outlining the positions of various concerned agencies, Kissinger recommended that the President approve Brownell’s report and authorize Secretary of State Rogers to present the proposal during an upcoming visit to Mexico.

    Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Country Files, Box 789, Latin America, Brownell Report on Salinity Problem with Mexico. Confidential. Sent for action. A note on the memorandum reads: “The President has seen.” Nixon initialed his approval of the memorandum’s three recommendations. The letter described as Tab A is not attached. All brackets are in the original.