TED Case Studies

Pollution in the Rio Grande (Rio Grande)

Case Number: 382

Case Mnemonic: RIOGRAND

Case Name: Rio Grande River Valley


1. The Issue

In 1965, Mexico initiated the Border Industrialization Program, widely known now as the maquiladora program. Under this program, foreign companies (primarily form the U.S. and Asia) could construct factories in Mexico and import parts and materials to those factories duty-free. With the growth of the maquiladora system, however, the potential for water pollution has increased. There are several factors that can contribute to pollution on the Rio Grande. For example, sewage treatment is inadequate in many communities on both sides of the border, and in addition to the human population, dangers exist for other oxygen-demanding substances, and pathogenic microorganisms. Another factor is pesticide contamination from farming regions around El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, Presidio/Ojinaga, Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras, and lower Rio Grande/Rio Bravo valley. Finally, there is a threat of toxic chemical contamination posed by the operation of the maquiladoras and other industries located on both sides of the border.

2. Description

In February 1992 the United States and Mexico issued the Integrated Environmental Plan for the Mexican -U.S. Border Area (First Stage, 1992 -1994). The plan calls for the two countries to work together to solve environmental problems in the border area. Specifically, the plan calls for the two countries to identify areas where any trans-boundary water source or potential transboundary water source is contaminated or where there is an identifiable threat of contamination.

In response to the need for comprehensive information, the two countries agreed to an intensive water quality investigation of the Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo from El Paso/Ciudad Juarez to Brownsville/Matamoros. Coordination between the two countries was conducted by the Mexican and U.S. sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC). The IBWC developed IBWC Minute number 289, dated November 13, 1992 which approved the study design and addressed binational cooperation for the water quality investigation. Study participants included the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Department of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission -U.S. & Mexico Sections, Comision Nacional del Agua, and Secretaria de Desarrollo Social.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has also contributed to greater environmental awareness. In 1992, for example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and later approved by the U.S. Congress in the Fall of 1993. The agreement, which strengthens trade relationships between the United States, Mexico and Canada, was the culmination of more than 3 years of sometimes difficult negotiations between the countries. Part of the public debate surrounding NAFTA centered on the environment, especially the implications of increased U. S. /Mexico economic integration for the border environment. To address these concerns, NAFTA was accompanied by environmental "side agreements" setting up new binational and trinational agencies to deal with environmental issues.

The environmental and public health implications of rapid population growth and industrial development at the border drew increasing attention during the NAFTA debate. Attention was focused on several issues, including: 1) the lack of waste water treatment and drinking water systems 2) problems tracking and accounting for hazardous waste generated by maquiladora plants 3) concerns about industrial air and water pollution associated with maquiladora plants.

To deal with these issues more effectively, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) have strengthened their border-related operations, in conjunction with their Mexican counter-parts. A few of the most recent initiatives to address the problem include: mechanisms set up within the NAFTA agreement and the Border Environment Cooperation Commission. The environmental infrastructure side agreement to NAFTA between Mexico and the U.S. created the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and the North American Development Bank (NADBank) to address the environmental infrastructure needs of the border area.

The Rio Grande begins in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and follows 1,885-mile course before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way the river and its tributaries drain a land area more than twice the size of California. This drainage area, or basin,encompasses a widely varied landscape in the U.S. and Mexico including mountains, forests, and deserts. The basin is home to diverse native plants and wildlife as well as some 10 million people. For approximately two - thirds of its course, the river also serves as the boundary between the countries.

The river is an important natural resource for industry, agriculture, domestic water supply,recreation and aesthetic enjoyment, and wildlife and aquatic habitat. Most of the major tributaries,and some of the lesser ones, are also of significance in these respects. Substantial agricultural areas where river water is diverted for irrigation include the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez area, Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras area, and Rio Grande/Rio Bravo valley downstream from International Falcon Dam. Through the reach from Laredo/Nuevo Laredo to the mouth, the river constitutes the primary drinking water source for up to 98% of the population in both countries.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has brought with it not only the potential for greater economic growth but also a larger population and increased industrialization on the border, and according to the Executive Summary of a biennial report authorized by the Texas Clean Rivers Act (1991), increased population and industrialization creates greater risk to the quality of the water and quantity that is available.

According to the Texas Environmental Almanac, in the fifteen Texas counties that border Mexico there has been on average a 27% increase in population from 1980 to 1990 from 1,211,820 to 1,535, 823. In the four Mexican states that border the U.S. the result was much the same. The average growth rate between border area populations and the rest of the state population was 26%. As a result of this increased population and industrialization, federal and local governments have been forced to deal with the three key issues of waste water treatment, tracking hazardous waste, and maquiladora pollution, all of which relate to providing a healthier water supply to the border population (see Table 1).

Table 1


Population Increases In Texas/Mexico Border Area

County 1980 1990 Change
Brewster 7,573 8,681 15%
Cameron 209,727 260,120 24%
El Paso 479,899 591,610 23%
Hidalgo 283,229 383,545 35%
Hudspeth 2,728 2,195 7%
Kinney 2,279 3,119 37%
Maverick 31,398 36,378 16%
Presido 5,188 6,637 28%
Starr 27,266 40,158 49%
Terrell 1,595 1,410 -12%
Val Verde 39,910 38,721 8%
Webb 99,258 133,239 34%
Willacy 17,459 17,705 1%
Zapata 6,628 9,297 40%
Jeff Davis 1,647 1,946 18%
Border Total 1,211,820 1,535,823 27%
States 14,229,191 16,986,510 19%

Mexico Population: Mexico-Texas Border Zone

Municipal Division Border Area Remainder of State %of State Growth Rate
Chihuahua 856,832 1,585,041 35% 37%
Coahuila 231,323 1,741,017 12% 18%
Nuevo Leon 56,270 3,042,466 2% 5%
Tamaulipas 1,015,567 1,834,014 36% 20%
Total 2,519,992 8,202,683 21% 26%

The above graphs illustrate the population growth that has occurred on both sides of the border in the last ten years. The North American Free Trade Agreement and the previous Border Industrialization program have facilitated this growth. The increased population has not only brought with it increased job opportunities, it has also created greater environmental hazards in the form of inadequate sewage treatment, pesticide contamination, and chemical contamination.

With respect to waste water treatment, The BECC and the NAD Bank, will give priority to projects that deal with water pollution, wastewater treatment and municipal solid waste. A study by the IBWC found that the cost of construction of wastewater treatment plants for Mexican border towns between and including Ciudad Juarez and Matamoros would approach $2 billion, but this funding could be the single most important factor in the effort for improved water quality in the basin.

Second, in order to better track waste movements across the border and to conduct monitoring of air and water quality in the region, in 1993 the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission established an office of Border Affairs and Environmental Equity. This office coordinates the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's efforts and tracks federal activities with respect to border environmental issues and works with state environmental departments in the four Mexican states that border Texas.

Finally, to more effectively address the problem of pollution caused by the Maquiladora system, the biennial report from the Texas Clean Rivers Act suggests utilizing local steering committees to encourage public input about the specific problems or concerns they have regarding their communities. Examples of this include, the Dia del Rio a citizen -led event organized by the Rio Grand/Rio Bravo Basin in October of 1995 and the Clean Rivers Program Water Quality Issues Meeting in January 1996.

3. Related Cases

Border case
Florido case
Basmex case
Nafta case
Lizard case
San Diego case
Mark Truck case
Carbon 2 case
Maquila case

Keyword Clusters





4. Draft Author:

Patrick Sanders, 12/18/96


5. Discourse and Status:

Agreement and incomplete

There is an agreement between Mexico and the United States in the form of NAFTA and its environmental "side agreements", and there is continued cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. and Mexico and Texas with respect to clean water. The status is incomplete however because there is still investigation to be done on what is causing water pollution. Once the facts are agreed upon, the two parties still need to agree to the type of solution, important for two reasons. First, the NAFTA agreement has helped facilitate economic growth on the border which has created the potential for greater environmental hazards. The second issue, and the flip side of the first, is that NAFTA has helped create the mechanisms to deal with the problem, in the form of legal agreements and less formal non-binding agreements such as grass -roots movements on both sides of the border.

6. Forum and Scope:

Mexico and Bilateral

7. Decision Breadth:

3 (USA, Mexico, and Canada)

Although this case-study has focused specifically on the Rio Grande, because the U.S., Mexico and Canada are all in NAFTA, and NAFTA is what precipitated many of the organizations that are dealing with the clean water issue, they could all be involved. The Executive Summary from the Texas Clean River Act asserts that the Rio Grande Basin provides a natural geographic context for resolving many transboundary natural resource management issues that are not limited to Texas and Mexico.

Specifically, when Mexico and the US go through the dispute resolution mechanism established in NAFTA, they are setting a precedent for dealing with environmental issues through consultation and arbitration. Transboundary problems are a concern to all countries. The way the US and Mexico have handled their problems, and they way they are instructed to handle their problems through NAFTA in future, sets an example for other countries.

Although Canada, for example, has no direct interest in the water quality of the Rio Grande,because the U.S., Mexico, and Canada are all connected through NAFTA, decisions made about the Rio Grande could impact future areas where Canada is involved, such as the Great Lakes.

8. Legal Standing:



9. Geographic Locations

Geographic Domain: North America [NAMER]

Geographic Site: Western North America [WNAMER]

Geographic Impact: United States [USA]

10. Sub -National Factors:


Local communities on both sides of the border are working independently and together to address water pollution in the Rio Grande.

11. Type of Habitat:


The climate of the border is mostly hot and dry, and the landscape, although varied, is mostly desert and rock terrain with only small trees and shrubs, and the Rio Grande has particular importance because it the major source of water for the entire border zone.


12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Standards [REGSTD]

There is a potential for substantial regulation because the mechanisms that have been created to deal with wastewater on the Texas/Mexico border are developed out of legislation, like the NAFTA "side agreements" or the Texas Clean River Act, but they have yet to be implemented in any substantive way due to the complexities of the border environment and the difficulties of developing international standards.

13. Direct vs. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Resource Impact

Directly Related: Yes

Indirectly Related: No

Not Related: No

Process Related: Yes water clean -up

The legislation has a direct impact on the future of the Texas/Mexico border's water supply. It will regulate Maquiladora pollution, track waste movements, and develop water purifications systems.

15. Trade Product Identification:

Goods produced in Maquiladora

16. Economic Data:

With approximately 700 maquiladoras located in the Mexican border cities across the Rio Grande, with the largest concentration on the Texas border in Juarez with over 300, Matamoros(94) and Reynosa (82), there is a potential that millions of dollars in goods and services would be effected by an increase in regulation through the implementation of clean water standards and monitoring procedures.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:

NAFTA and Many


20. Environmental Problem Type:

POLW [pollution water]

21. Number of Species

Name: Many

Type: Many

Diversity: The effects of water pollution, on the 23 major river basins in Texas, on plant and animal life has yet to be quantified, but the potential for a highly destructive effect exists.

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

Medium and Scale

Enough research has not yet been done. What is being attempted is to try and mitigate or prevent a disaster before it occurs. Increases in population and industrial outputs is not in dispute nor is the idea that they will have a negative effect on water quality; however, the number of species lost or the number of humans who have been sick or killed from contaminated water is not yet known.

23. Urgency and Lifetime:

Low and 100s of years

24. Substitutes:


Introducing more environmentally friendly methods of producing goods and investing in water purification and pollution prevention are a few possible remedies/substitutes. These measures should be done in conjunction with strictly enforced regulations on the type and amount of waste that can be emitted from maquiladoras.


25. Culture:


26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


The regulatory mechanisms have been established in NAFTA as "side agreements" and these will control what can be done between Mexico and the U.S. The situation is not easy since Mexico and the U.S. have different priorities for environmental standards, with the U.S. typically demanding stricter standards. The situation could easily develop into a North/South debate, where Mexico accuses the U.S. of using environmental regulations as a way of hampering its economic development. However, if all parties have an equal voice within the organizations that have been discussed, such a conflict can be avoided.

27. Human Rights:


U.S. and Mexican citizens alike have entrusted their respective governments with the responsibility of protecting them. This includes protection from the harm that is caused by industrial waste and pollution.

28. Relevant Literature

1. Transboundary Resource Inventory Project; http://www.glo.state.tx.us/infosys/gis/trip/english/trip.html

2. Executive Summary; Texas Clean Rivers Act

3. Texas Environmental Almanac; http://www.tec.org/almanac/NAFTA.FOCUS.HTML

4. Eaton, David J. and Mark W. Killgore. Nafta Handbook for Water Resource Managers and Engineers. New York, 1995.

5. Final Report on the Binational study Regarding the Presence of Toxic Substances in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and its Tributaries, International Boundary and Water Commission. U.S./ Mexico, 1994.

6. Gillian, David, Helen Ingram and Nancy Laney. Divided Waters: Bridging the U.S.-Mexico Border. Tuscon, 1995.

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