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On the U.S.-Mexico border, water shortages loom as the region races for solutions

Population growth and climate change could in the coming years bring water shortages along the Rio Grande river, a source of drinking water and agriculture for U.S. and Mexico. “Shallow Waters,” a nine-part series by Quartz and the Texas Observer, looked at the potential impacts of water scarcity in the region. Quartz’s Zoë Schlanger joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Rio Grande river is both a border and an important source of water for the United States and Mexico. Millions of people depend on the river for drinking water and agriculture. As the population in the region grows and climate change brings longer lasting droughts, there are some predictions of a regional water shortage.

    In a nine-part series called "Shallow Waters," Quartz and The Texas observer investigated the potential water scarcity on both sides of the border. Recently I spoke with Zoë Schlanger, an environmental reporter at Quartz, about the challenges facing the Rio Grande.

    Zoë Schlanger, thanks for joining us. You take a long look over a series of stories about what's happening on the border. Our border with Mexico is one that is predominantly a river for most of it and the river doesn't actually care who's on which side. And a river's a natural body that will adjust with floodplains and so forth. So what are some of the consequences of saying we want to put up a wall or at least firm that wall up.What happens ecologically on both sides of that wall?

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Absolutely. I think most Americans not in the region don't quite realize that where the wall will be placed is along a river that both sides depend on. Six million people drink from it both in the U.S. and Mexico. And if you put a wall up against the river or even sometimes a mile away, you have a fluctuating river body, exactly as you said and we've already seen a few years back in 2014 and the section of a border wall already put up — Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona that border area.

    It caused a flood because walls act like dams. And so when the river swells and there's massive rainfall during a monsoon season, the debris just piles up and water can't pass. And so in that instance two people died in those floodwaters. So it's something that we have to think about.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    These are huge floodplains on either side where people are actually dependent on this to grow crops, to drink water, as you said. So is there cooperation between the two countries to kind of say 'OK, there's the politics of it, but there's also just the fact that we need this water on both sides to survive'?

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Absolutely. There's kind of a second set of politics happening along the border as it pertains specifically to water that most people don't know about, but the State Department has an employee who negotiates directly with Mexico and they meet and they talk all the time. I've met both the Mexican Commissioner and the U.S. Commissioner and seen them eat lunch together.

    It's a very collegial relationship because it has to be. Because we rely on Mexico and the U.S. for drinking water in that area and in Mexico they rely on us for a different portion of the river for drinking water. So they don't really have an option not to talk to each other and maintain a friendly environment despite changes in administration or anything else going on.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let's talk in a longer time scale, what's happening to the river and what's happening to the sort of water table that's underneath it? Is there greater stress on it now than there was 30, 40 years ago?

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Yeah there really is. It happens to be one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S. and the U.S. side. And the population is going up even faster on the Mexican side. You have a region that's set to double in population by 2060 and a river that the federal government acknowledges will not be able to meet demand by that same year, by 2060. We're looking at way less snowfall, where the the river is fed from snowfall in the Colorado mountains and the monsoon rains are changing on the Mexican side.

    So basically you have increased population, more people needing to drink water and way diminished water resources.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you have a huge chunk of this that actually goes through a desert.

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    There are part parts of the river that completely dry out in the dry season and you have droughts that are increasing. And scientists say this is due to climate change and due to more aridity and less rainfall. So with droughts going up and population increasing it's a pretty tough spot.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But you have also a story on El Paso which I didn't know about was actually relatively speaking, a leader on trying to conserve the amount of water and they've been doing this for decades.

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Yeah. El Paso an incredible case study in what you have to do to really address the fact that you live in a river. Live in, I'm sorry, live in a desert and at a time of increasing aridity, their — Ed Archuleta, their water commissioner decided about 30 years ago to start drastically cutting water per person and educating children. He would go into the schools and tell them about how they really live in a desert. They have to act like desert animals when there's less water, you use less water. And so now they're at this point where they're doing something really groundbreaking for the U.S. and for the whole world, really, where they're planning to treat wastewater.

    They're acknowledging their river that they depend on and that Mexico depends on it too is going to be gone soon. And so now they're going to start treating wastewater and putting it through the pipes back to their population. And because El Paso people have been taught for decades now that they live in a dry place and need to respect that they're open to this in a way that I think many other cities in the U.S. wouldn't fathom the idea of drinking their own waste water this kind of closed loop water cycle.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How did they figure out a way to think long term? Because oftentimes, especially politicians can't see past the next two years election cycle or re-election cycle.

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Ed Archuleta had so much to do with this. He offered subsidies to people who would rip up their lawns. In the 1980s in El Paso, lawns were the thing. Everyone had really lavish gardens, things like that. And he cut that out. He said 'I'll pay you a dollar per cubic foot of lawn that you rip out and help you put in more desert plants or rocks,' or things like that. And so now you go to El Paso you don't see those lawns anymore. It's just been this kind of slow reeducating people on what they need to do to make that city survive.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And that's become a model for other dry cities around the country and possibly around the world as well. This was a series in conjunction with the Texas Observer. As you went through this, what was the 'aha' moment for you in the reporting?

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Yes, so Naveena Sadasivam and I at the Texas Observer had been talking to politicians and farmers and so many different people who had stakes in this river. And I think as a reporter based in New York, it was incredible for me to realize how border politics on the ground are so different from what we hear in the news. When both sides know that they need each other for this resource. No one can live without water. No one can farm without water. There's so much more collaboration than you'd think of.

    So really right now it sounds like everyone's kind of holding and waiting to see what happens on the national level with the Trump administration as to what that will, how that will affect things on the ground for them. But on the whole, there's so much more collaboration than people think about. I think what really hit home with that for me is the fact that in Nogales, Arizona there's a pipe that goes right through the border wall to Nogales, Sonora in Mexico to feed a hotel and some other businesses water. So that's been there since when the water commissioner there said the border back then was like barely a fence. Maybe it wasn't even there at all when they started this collaboration, this informal water sharing practice. And they still do it. There's still, we went down and saw it and there's just a pipe straight through the wall carrying water.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. The series is called "Shallow Waters" you can find it online. It's a joint reporting project between Quartz and The Texas Observer. Thanks so much for joining us, Zoë Schlanger.

  • ZOË SCHLANGER:

    Thank you.

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