Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998
Conflict Resolution and Transboundary Water Resources

Toward jointly managing a transboundary aquifer: Creating a binational dialogue through community participation and education

by Elaine Moore Hebard

"For a binational dialogue to be viable, it must include public participation and community education. This paper details efforts to create such a dialogue in the context of a Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP) project to create a water quality assessment plan. The proposal was to compile data and characterize the aquifer, and to involve local residents, municipalities, and regional planning bodies in the design, coordination and implementation of the project so as to integrate project results into both communities."

Note: This article is based on a longer paper delivered at the 9th U.S./Mexico Border States Conference on Recreation, Parks and Wildlife, "Cross Border Waters: Fragile Treasures for the 21st Century," June 3-6 1998, Tucson, Arizona. The text of the original paper is included in the 9th Borderlands conference proceedings. Free copies of the proceedings can be ordered from the Rocky Mountain Research Station. Please refer to the publication by name:
Publications Distribution
Rocky Mountain Research Station
3825 E. Mulberry Street
Fort Collins, CO 80524-8597
Telephone: +1 (970) 498-1719
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E-mail: rschneider/


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Watershed planning requires knowledge of water quantity, water quality, economic activities, social characteristics, and a baseline inventory of natural resources -- all fundamental to designing a workable management regime. In addition to data collection, the process must include initiating a water dialogue that blends technical analysis with public participation. Such a dialogue would help local citizens understand what the resource is, including its present condition and potential, and how they may best conserve and preserve it.

Rationale for binational watershed planning

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Mimbres basin thumbnail
Thumbnail link to Mimbres basin picture, ~19K file

The Mimbres drainage system, a "closed basin," is located in arid southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Chihuahua -- an area receiving approximately 23 cm (9 inches) of rain annually. Two border communities -- Columbus, New Mexico and Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, bound by historical, familial and economic ties -- depend solely on groundwater for their water. Columbus, located in Luna County, has 650 residents. Puerto Palomas, situated in the Municipio of Ascension, has roughly 10,000 residents. During the last twenty years, the population of Luna County has increased by 55% and of the Municipio by 76%. Agriculture contributes significantly to the social and economic makeup of the area but also accounts for 95% of the withdrawal and the depletion rates from the aquifer. Projected increases in population as well as agriculture and industrial development will only intensify pressure on the already declining water table.(1)

Current or potential contamination and alkalization are also concerns, and recent drought has emphasized the need for water conservation. Despite this, the international border has made it nearly impossible for the two communities to jointly manage the aquifer they both depend on, even though such joint management is critical.

Adequate mechanisms to deal with this dilemma are lacking. While both the New Mexico State Engineer and the Comisión Nacional de Agua (Mexico's National Water Commission) do plan for their users, each formulates its rates of withdrawal without considering usage on the other side of the border. Furthermore, there is little systematic gathering of data on water characteristics or behavior, and no formal sharing of existing data, much less joint planning for future usage and/or conservation. This lack of information about the aquifer makes it difficult for residents to make rational choices between proposed uses of water and for government agencies to predict the aquifer's carrying capacity. This results in inappropriate policies, renders current unilateral plans useless, hinders impact analysis and impedes the consideration of options. Fostering a binational dialogue is a progressive and necessary step toward achieving a transboundary watershed managment scheme for the Mimbres basin.

For a binational dialogue to be viable, it must include public participation and community education (2). This paper details efforts to create such a dialogue in the context of a Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP) project to create a water quality assessment plan. The proposal was to compile data and characterize the aquifer, and to involve local residents, municipalities, and regional planning bodies in the design, coordination and implementation of the project so as to integrate project results into both communities. Both team consultations and community meetings were planned, so that the questions raised would help guide the research as well as the formulation of the plan, which in turn would address noted local concerns. The objectives for the community meetings were to "disseminate information about ground water to the public, to involve citizens in the decision-making process concerning ground water and to nurture a transborder dialogue on ground water."

Initial phase

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The first task was to design and implement a public participation program for the two border communities. While the shared aquifer created a unifying theme, many differences remained in terms of legal and administrative systems, the level of knowledge, available data, sufficient time to participate, experiences, cultures, etc. Most important, expectations of what public participation means may vary, thus actual participation is likely to as well.

Due to the lack of models to follow, the initial program involved identical processes implemented on both sides of the border. These included personal contacts, presentations to officials, informational public meetings and communications with teachers.

Preliminary outcomes can be summarized as follows:

  • While concerns regarding the aquifer were substantial, most participants felt they lacked sufficient knowledge about water in general; hence they could not discuss water quality.
  • There are at least two embedded communities, which do not necessarily have similar interests; they therefore infrequently attend similar events.
  • Different administrative cultures result in different degrees of participation. Border residents often have knowledge of the workings of both systems. As participants or observers, they have seen public participation at work, which may create problems with a more centralized system.
  • Working on a different time table, the technical part of the team did not have data available to share with the community.

Revised work plan

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After the initial phase, the program was adjusted based on participants' observations and the preliminary outcomes. The work plan was revised to address participants' perceived lack of knowledge. The focus shifted from providing information from the team to the community to providing knowledge concerning the resource in general. Such modifications also meant that the programs were no longer identical in the two communities.

The revised work plan targeted specific populations -- parents and retirees in Columbus; parents and officials in Palomas -- in order to involve as many people as possible. Under the new plan, the objectives were to:

  • present information about potential water quality problems as well as solutions;
  • advise about the function of the different agencies charged with protecting and managing hydrologic resources; and
  • exchange ideas about water between the two communities.

posters thumbnail
Thumbnail link, posters at the Water Fair, ~30K file

Numerous activities were undertaken during the final phase of the project:

  1. The team conducted ongoing consultations with and presentations of the project to various officials to ensure good communication and cooperation.
  2. To increase attendance, ensure diversity and provide notification, flyers were mailed prior to each meeting to public officials and specific individuals who had either participated or had been recommended. Follow-up telephone calls and personal visits were also used.
  3. Water-related materials were donated to the Columbus Public Library, as well as schools on both sides. (Unfortunately, there is no similar community repository for information in Palomas.)
  4. Presentations were made to the three elementary, junior high and senior high schools. These entailed discussions of the hydrologic cycle, the importance of water, and ways to conserve it, followed by performance of some tests using a spectrophotometer.
  5. Appropriate, region-specific materials were developed for use in the school and community meetings; these included bilingual posters and pamphlets on basic hydrology, conservation and preservation.
  6. A binational Water Festival/Festival del Agua was organized and held at the end of the project at the Palomas Elementary School.
  7. Display posters were prepared, explaining the project as well as public participation and its importance to planning.(3)
  8. Comments and suggestions were gathered throughout the process. Approximately 90 persons filled out the exit survey at the water festival.(4)
  9. Potential follow-up projects were suggested: form a high school Ecological Club (one formed less than a month after the festival); join the local group "Water for Life"; start a Water Advisory Board (Chihuahua) and a Water Planning Group for the Mimbres (New Mexico).

children dancing thumbnail
Thumbnail link, dancers at the Water Fair, ~24K file

Many of these activities had promising results. The Water for Life/Agua Para la Vida group was formed in Columbus to educate residents about their water resource; its first project was a seminar on xeriscaping (low water-use gardening) to introduce the subject in a non-threatening forum. The Water Festival drew over 400 attendees with some 15 U.S. and Mexican agencies participating. Approximately 800 students from the local schools prepared posters, models, skits, dances, and a survey of water knowledge in the community. This forum also provided the team with an excellent vehicle to present the full project. A video of the event is evolving into a useful teaching tool. Finally, information about water was disseminated throughout the two communities, especially via school handouts and the festival.

Analysis, recommendations and conclusions

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The team successfully identified concerned groups and individuals and provided all interested parties with access to the process. Different forums were used to encourage involvement. Several communications media were used, and all materials were prepared to be easily understood. Local participants were recruited to take on various assignments. The educational component was successful, as highlighted by the water festival.

In accord with the earlier-stated objectives, both the planning preceding the water festival and the desire to hold it annually represent successful steps toward developing a binational discussion. However, little was accomplished as far as enabling residents to discover and share data, give their input on water quality issues, and be involved in designing the plan. To date, participation has not been integral to the planning process. The team did not provide the public with specific information about the aquifer in a timely fashion. Perhaps this was due to conflicting expectations within the team, which had difficulty determining and thus agreeing on what an assessment plan entailed, how various components fit together and what time frame was appropriate.


  • Community-level
    • Identify and involve key regional stakeholders.
    • Seek local coordinators to become involved as soon as possible.
    • Create a local committee to announce activities, share information and coordinate efforts, as well as to establish long-term commitment to the process.
    • Build resources into a budget to assist local participants.
    • Ensure that public officials are informed of a project.
    • Share information and address concerns to instill ownership and ensure implementation.
    • Integrate results of a project with local and regional governments.
    • Obtain long-term funding to ensure the continuation of the process.
  • Team-level
    • Especially when working with a binational, multi-disciplinary team, formalize all work plans.
    • Engage in ongoing and constant communication, coordination and joint involvement throughout a project (rather than each team member working as an independent entity).
    • Obtain consensus on all components of a project.


The most effective means of improving water quality of the water and protecting public health in the border region is through binational coordination and collaboration.

Public participation is indispensable when creating a plan. An opportunity is provided for agencies responsible for managing the resource to disseminate information, discover information needs and fill those gaps, and identify additional aspects requiring inquiry and research. Once local citizens become aware of and interested in their watershed, they are more likely to become involved in decision-making as well as hands-on protection and restoration efforts. With local involvement, watershed management builds a sense of community, helps reduce conflicts, and increases the public's commitment to actions needed to meet environmental goals.

This project began an educational process by creating and distributing information, obtaining comments, and working within the schools. But that is only the beginning. Without a commitment to engage citizens from both sides of the border, it is unlikely that transboundary planning efforts will flourish.

The public participation component was successful as a public outreach service. Unfortunately, the transmission of information to be incorporated into a plan never occurred. Nevertheless, future presentations concerning the project's technical aspects are envisioned. Integration of this information with local and regional governments' efforts to manage the resource remains a fundamental, but unfinished, goal.

One year did not provide sufficient time to develop groups committed to ongoing involvement, particularly where there are no final outcomes in sight nor any proprietary interest in the resultant data. Should further information be forthcoming, thus providing further reason to be involved, participants will likely be more interested in continuing their endeavors. Hopefully, as the communities become better informed, a nascent binational dialogue concerning their mutually-shared aquifer will evolve. Working together, the binational area can create solutions to ameliorate increasingly negative impacts.


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Funding for this project was provided by the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP). Thanks especially to Dr. David Henkel, Ing. Mercado Prez and the teachers and residents of Palomas and Columbus for their invaluable assistance.


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1. Over the past several decades, water levels have been declining on both sides due to overdrafting. Between 1950 and 1970, water levels decreased 120 feet in an area of concentrated irrigation east of Columbus (Harshbarger & Assoc. 1978). Blandford's (1987, 23) study indicated that a source of water for wells in the Columbus area was the "reduced underflow toward the basin's southern boundary." The 1991 Regional Water Plan underscored this situation, noting that "pumpage on this side of the border has reversed the flow direction across the border and induced flow into New Mexico." (Resource Technology 1991, I: 9-3). (Back to text)

2. Public involvement is also consistent with the goals of several relevant agencies and institutions, such as SEMARNAP (the Mexican environmental agency), EPA, the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC), the New Mexico State Engineer, and the Comision Nacional del Agua. Public participation and education are key elements in both the statutorily created New Mexico Regional Water Planning (72-14-44 NMSA 1978 Comp) and Mexico's Water Advisory Councils (Consejos de Cuencas), mentioned in Article 13 of the National Water Law, enacted in December 1992. (Back to text)

3. The posters were arranged by topic, under headings such as "Why a Plan" and the "Purpose of the Project" on one poster board, and "How does Public Participation and Education Fit into a Plan?," "What We've Done," "Objectives," "Potential Outcomes," "What Can You Do" and "Where You Can Obtain More Information" on another. (Back to text)

4. The survey included questions such as:
Is water important to you?
Do you think that people use water inadequately? Why?
What are your suggestions as to how to conserve water? To protect water?
If decisions about the care of water were in your hands, what would you do?
What additional information would you like? (Back to text)


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Blandford, T.N. and J. Wilson. 1987. Large scale parameter estimation through the inverse procedure and uncertainty propogation in the Columbus Basin, New Mexico. Technical Report. Las Cruces, NM: New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, New Mexico State University.

Harshbarger & Associates, Inc. 1978. Overview report of groundwater basins along the international boundary - New Mexico, United States and Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. Preliminary Report prepared for the International Boundary and Water Commission, El Paso, Texas.

Resource Technology. 1991. Southwest New Mexico regional water plan. 2 Volumes.

Tanski, J.M., A. Hanson, A. Granados O., M.G. Mercado P., D. Henkel and E.M. Hebard. 1997. Water quality assessment plan for Columbus, New Mexico, and Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua. SCERP Project Number: WQ96-5.

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Author Information

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Elaine Hebard is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include transborder and water issues, bioregional and watershed planning methods, community participation and education, sustainable development criteria and environmental indicators, and conflict resolution. She can be reached for comment by email at:

Additional web resources

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Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy
SCERP is a consortium of five U.S. and four Mexican dedicated to applied environmental research on the U.S.-Mexican border region. Among other information, SCERP's web site includes an abstract of the project upon which the activities described in this paper were based:
Water Quality Assessment Plan for Columbus, New Mexico, and Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua

BorderLines 44: Water Quality in the Border Region (online journal)
Published by the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC), BorderLines is a monthly bulletin analyzing environmental, socioeconomic, and political issues in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Each issue focuses on a particular topic of interest to borderlands residents.

Administered by the Interhemispheric Resource Center, INCITRA (Información Ciudadana Transfronteriza/Information for Citizen Transboundary Action)is a borderlands project that serves as a clearinghouse for information and resources related to sustainable development issues in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

As interest in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands region has grown, so has the number of web sites devoted to the region. Many are not directly pertinent to the topic of this article but may contain more general information of interest to its readers. The following two web sites, both excellent starting points, are included with such readers in mind:

Borderlands Environmental Archives
Maintained by environmental journalist Ron Mader, this site is the most comprehensive starting point available for locating environmental information on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Andanzas al Web Latino
Maintained by Molly Molloy of the New Mexico State University library, this site provides access to extensive Internet resources by/for Latino/Hispanic communities in the U.S., with emphasis on the U.S.-Mexico border region.

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