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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Bordering on Water Management: Ground and Wastewater in the United States - Mexico Transboundary Santa Cruz Basin

  • Author(s): Milman, Anita Dale
  • Advisor(s): Ray, Isha
  • et al.

Intensive use of groundwater in internationally shared aquifers and flows of untreated wastewater across international borders not only create negative environmental and economic externalities, they also generate tensions amongst neighboring nations. Although there exists a growing body of literature on cooperation over surface waters, few studies examine the management of transboundary groundwater and cross-border flows of wastewater. Templates from research on cooperation over transboundary rivers are likely not applicable to transboundary ground and wastewaters, as they have different physical and institutional characteristics. Through an investigation of the shared ground and wastewaters in the Upper Santa Cruz River basin (USCRB), located along the US-Mexico border, my research improves understandings of factors that heighten and hinder bi-national cooperation over those transboundary resources.

In the USCRB ground and wastewaters are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty. Contested visions, ill-defined management goals, an inability to quantify water needs, and incommensurability between outcomes cause the utility functions of both the US and Mexico to be poorly defined. Moreover, due to incomplete conceptual models, insufficient data, and subjectivity in interpretation, physical processes are not well understood. As a result, it is unclear what either side of the border stands to gain or lose from implementing transboundary ground and wastewater management activities.

In addition to this uncertainty, institutional arrangements within both the US and Mexico condition the position of each country vis-à-vis its shared waters. Polycentricism in national and sub-national institutional regimes leads to gaps and overlaps in authority while concurrently, the evolving nature of institutional arrangements leads to ambiguity in authority and responsibilities. These gaps, overlaps, and ambiguity limit the capacity of each country to conduct transboundary water management activities.

The combination of this complex institutional environment with considerable uncertainty compels each country to undertake unilateral action based on that country's ethos of water and the immediate incentives it faces. Strengthening the internal capacity of each country, by addressing structural problems in the institutional realm and improving knowledge in the technical-information realm, will lead to greater awareness of possible synergies from cooperation and will increase its ability to take advantage of those synergies.

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