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Back to Legislation on Use of Water in Agriculture

I.  Background

Agriculture plays a significant role in the Mexican economy.  It represents 8.4% of the gross domestic product and provides employment to 23% of the working population.[1]  Furthermore, 77% of Mexican water is used for agricultural purposes.[2]

The National Water Commission (Conagua) is Mexico’s water authority, whose vast administrative system manages water rights and policy through its central headquarters in Mexico City and its regional offices and irrigation districts, as well as through several entities that provide support on such issues as clean beaches.[3]

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II.  Legal Framework

The use of water for agriculture is primarily governed by the National Waters Law.[4]  This Law provides that, as a general rule, Mexican waters are national property and, consequently, their use is administered and allocated by concessions granted by the federal government through its National Water Commission.[5] Some waters may be subject to private property provided that applicable rules are met.[6]

A.  Concessions

Water concessions must indicate the amount of water authorized for extraction, the specific use for such water, the location of the point of extraction, and the term of the concession.[7]  A concession may be granted for a term of five to thirty years, and may be extended if a request for its extension is made at least six months before the expiration of the concession.[8]

B.  Water for Domestic Use

Surface water may be freely used for domestic purposes (such as watering gardens and ornamental trees, and providing domestic animals with drinking water) as long as its stream bed and quality is not altered by the user and its quantity is not significantly diminished.[9]  Such a diminution may be presumed if the extraction of water is made through the use of pumping equipment or similar mechanical or electric devices.[10]

C.  Water Conservation

The National Waters Law provides that conservation and protection of the quantity and quality of water is a matter of national security; therefore, unsustainable use of water must be avoided.[11]  Mexico’s National Water Commission promotes strategies aimed at fostering the sustainable use of water in agriculture, which include

  • using irrigation technologies that allow for the efficient use of water in agriculture (i.e., technologies that allow less water to be used while achieving equal or better agricultural productivity);
  • fostering the sowing of crops that don’t require high water volumes, especially in arid areas;
  • distributing water through irrigation tubes in order to minimize water loss through evaporation and surface filtration; and
  • using treated wastewater for the irrigation of crops (except for vegetables that may be consumed raw).[12]

D.  Water Quality

Mexico’s Environmental Standard NOM-001-SEMARNAT-1996 sets limits on the amount and type of pollutants that are allowed in water used for agricultural purposes.[13]  The holders of water concessions for agriculture must comply with environmental standards and requirements applicable to the discharge of water and the prevention and control of pollution resulting from handling substances that may contaminate water quality.[14]

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III.  Intercountry Disputes Concerning the Use of Water

Mexico shares three transboundary rivers with the United States (the Tijuana River, the Colorado River, and the Rio Grande).[15]  Bilateral treaties (particularly the 1944 Treaty on Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and the Rio Grande) provide rules that govern the sharing mechanisms applicable to these water resources.[16]  The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is a binational entity that comprises a Mexican section and a United States section, each administered separately by a Commissioner appointed by the Presidents of Mexico and the United States, respectively.[17]  The duties of the IBWC include the distribution of the waters of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande between both countries.[18]

Recently, the United States has claimed that Mexico is not sharing the amount of water from the Rio Grande as provided by the 1944 Treaty.[19]  The Texas Department of Agriculture has released a report explaining this issue as follows:

The [1944 Water] Treaty takes a five-year approach to water management.  Mexico is required to provide a minimum of 350,000 acre feet of water on average to the United States each year of the term.  Should Mexico fail to deliver the annual allocation, it is required to catch-up and correct the accumulated deficit by the end of the five-year term at the latest.  The Treaty provides Mexico with an exemption to the delivery schedule if the country is in extraordinary drought.  However, the agreement directs Mexico and the United States to attempt to ensure compliance.  Currently, Mexico is neither in extraordinary drought nor attempting to ensure compliance.  The current water management cycle began in October 2010.  Two and a half years into the current cycle, Mexico should have delivered 916,000 acre-feet to Texas.  Instead, as of June 8, 2013, Mexico has delivered only 433,408 acre-feet, creating a pro-rata deficit of 483,000 acre-feet.  Should Mexico refuse to comply with the Treaty, the water debt at the end of the five-year cycle could total approximately 1.2 million acre-feet or more.[20]

According to an official with the US section of the IBWC, Mexico is not setting aside the water allocation that must be delivered every year to the United States.[21]  Instead, Mexico apparently relies on rainy years to deliver annual water allocations, and a drought that started in 2011 has prevented Mexico from delivering water to the United States.[22]  According to news reports, the Mexican government is currently addressing this issue by developing regulations that would require setting aside water to meet Mexico’s obligations to the United States.  These regulations could become effective by October 2013.[23]

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Prepared by Gustavo Guerra
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
October 2013


[1] OECD, Making Water Reform Happen in Mexico 174 (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787 /9789264187894-en.

[2] Comisión Nacional del Agua [Conagua] , Programa Nacional Hidrico 2007–2012 [National Water Program 2007–2012] 27 (Feb. 2008), http://www.conagua.gob.mx/CONAGUA07/Contenido/Documentos/PNH _05-08.pdf.

[3] OECD, supra note 1, at 45, 47, 113, 114, 115, 174.  See also Historia, Conagua, http://www.conagua.gob.mx /Contenido.aspx?n1=1 (last updated Oct. 25, 2012).

[4] Ley de Aguas Nacionales [National Waters Law], as amended, arts. 4, 9, 48, Diario Oficial de la Federación [DO], Dec. 1, 1992, available on the website of Mexico’s House of Representatives, at http://www.diputados.gob.mx /LeyesBiblio/pdf/16.pdf.

[5] Id. arts. 16, 20.

[6] Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos [Political Constitution of the Mexican United States], as amended, art. 27, DO, Feb. 5, 1917, available on the website of Mexico’s House of Representatives, at http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/1.pdf.

[7] Ley de Aguas Nacionales art. 23.

[8] Id. art. 24.

[9] Id. arts. 3(LVI), 17.

[10] Reglamento de la Ley de Aguas Nacionales [Regulation of the National Waters Law], as amended, art. 28, DO, Jan. 12, 1994, http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/regley/Reg_LAN.pdf.

[11] Ley de Aguas Nacionales art. 14 BIS 5(IX).

[12] Press Release No. 148/13, CONAGUA, CONAGUA promueve la modernización del campo para eficientar el uso del agua [Mexico’s National Water Commission Promotes the Efficient Use of Water in Agriculture] (Mar. 29, 2013), http://www.conagua.gob.mx/CONAGUA07/Comunicados /Comunicado%20de%20Prensa%20No%20148-13.pdf.

[13] Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-001-SEMARNAT-1996, Que establece los límites máximos permisibles de contaminantes en las descargas de aguas residuales en aguas y bienes nacionales [Official Mexican Standard NOM-001-ECOL-1996, Establishing the Maximum Limits of Pollutants in Wastewaters Discharged in National Waters], DO, Oct. 30, 1996, http://www.conagua.gob.mx/CONAGUA07/Publicaciones/Publicaciones/SGAA-15-13.pdf

[14] Reglamento de la Ley de Aguas Nacionales art. 137.

[15] OECD, Making Water Reform Happen in Mexico 60 (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787 /9789264187894-en.

[16] Id.

[17] The International Boundary and Water Commission – Its Mission, Organization and Procedures for Solution of Boundary and Water Problems, International Boundary & Water Commission – United States Section, http://www.ibwc.state.gov/About_Us/About_Us.html (last visited Sept. 16, 2013).

[18] Id.

[19] Morning Edition: Water Dispute Heightens Tensions Between U.S., Mexico (NPR radio broadcast Sept. 4, 2013, with transcript), http://www.npr.org/2013/09/04/218834216/water-dispute-heightens-tensions-between-u-s-mexico.

[20] Texas Department of Agriculture, Addressing Mexico’s Water Deficit to the United States, http://www.texasagriculture.gov/Portals/0/forms/COMM/Water%20Debt.pdf (last visited Sept. 19, 2013).

[21] Morning Edition, supra note 19.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

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Last Updated: 03/31/2014