Mexico facing “water zero”

Mexico is one of a growing list of countries deemed most at risk of hitting “Day Zero” when they no longer have enough water to meet citizen needs, according to a new report by global research organization, World Resources Institute (WRI).

The nonprofit institute categorized countries into five different levels according to their relative risk of consuming all of their water resources, ranging from “Low Baseline Water Stress” to “Extremely High Baseline Water Stress.”

Mexico is one of 44 countries – representing one-third of the world’s population – that fall into the second highest category, “High Baseline Water Stress,” meaning that the nation consumes between 40 and 80 percent of the water supply available in a year. 

Fifteen states in the northern and central part of Mexico fall within the “Extremely High” category, meaning they are withdrawing more than 80 percent of their available supply. Among them are some of Arizona’s closest neighbors: Sonora, Chihuahua, Baja California Sur. 

Arizona impacted by Mexican water woes 

That’s of concern to Arizona. If trends continue, this suggests that one of the world’s biggest water crises could happen at the state’s southern door. 

“Along the U.S.-Mexico border, there are significant issues with water use and they involve, particularly in Mexico, aging water infrastructure that is delivering water or treating wastewater,” said John Shepard, senior director of programs for the nonprofit Sonoran Institute in Tucson that raises funding and leads projects to protect fresh water and treat wastewater in border communities and in the massive Colorado River Delta.

The Sonoran Institute has raised funding and support to revive former wetlands through projects like the Las Arenitas Wastewater Treatment Plant in border town, Mexicali, Mexico, where new wetlands have been established adjacent the plant and act as a natural bio filter to improve the quality of wastewater. 

That wastewater also is being used to revive the Colorado River estuary and the Hardy River, a tributary of the Colorado in Mexico.

Nogales wastewater pipeline next on list to fix

Another goal is to raise funding to replace the 8.5-mile sewer pipeline that spills sewage from Mexico into Arizona. At one point the stink caused Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to declare a brief state of emergency.

The pipeline, called the International Outfall Interceptor, takes sewage from the small Arizona city of Nogales and the adjacent manufacturing city of Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant in Rio Rico, Arizona. Millions of gallons flow to the plant each day that are discharged into the Santa Cruz river.

Leaking like a sieve 

In Mexico, many water problems are the result of decaying water and wastewater infrastructure.

Mexico City, whose severe water issues come from being built in a valley that has no above water resources. The vast majority of water is stored in an underground aquifer. Leaks and breaks in the water and wastewater systems are causing a massive water loss, including an estimated 40 percent of drinking water. 

Massive wastewater tunnel finally completed  

To help stave off a coming water crisis, Mexico City recently achieved a desperately needed milestone. 

In May, the city completed construction of one of the largest underground waste-water drainage tunnels in the world. The Emision Oriente tunnel took ten years – boring through difficult and challenging geology – to construct the tunnel that will provide an adequate method for capturing and treating wastewater treatment for 21.2 million people. 

High water stress plagues many countries, some of U.S. 

Seventeen countries, that account for one-quarter of the world’s population, are listed in the  “extremely high” water stress category in the WRI report. That means irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities are withdrawing more than 80 percent of their available supply on average every year. 

The Middle East and North Africa are the most water stressed regions in the world. Qatar, Israel and Lebanon top the list of countries.  

The United States is in a much better position, sitting in the second to lowest risk category, “Low-to-medium Baseline Water Stress.” But there are pockets of concern. One state – New Mexico – is labeled extremely high for water stress. 

Four states are labeled “high stress” including Arizona and California that entered into a  legally binding Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) this year in which seven states and Mexico are storing and conserving water for the future.

Greater cross border cooperation is future 

Decisive action can save the day, said Shepard, pointing to the DCP, cities like Phoenix and Tucson that have prepared well for water shortages, and border city El Paso that announced last year it is using wastewater for drinking water.  

“I think you’re going to see a need for greater cooperation between border communities that sit on shared groundwater aquifers, and at some point, they’re going to have to find a way to work together,” Shepard said.

As far as north of the border, Arizona is well positioned to address water shortages and adapt because of its proactive approach, he said. 

“We’ll get it done (but) we’re never going to be able to be the way were were again,” he said. “We’re constantly going to be adapting to a rapidly evolving situation around climate and water.

Read more about efforts to resolve problems with Nogales wastewater pipeline that is shared by both countries at: Nogales Wastewater Fairness Act. 

Victoria Harker

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