• U.S.

Mexico: Sweetening the Salt

2 minute read

The big little salt war between the U.S. and Mexico was finally over. On both sides of the border, there were cheers for the long-awaited settlement of a minor but highly abrasive issue: U.S. pollution of the Colorado River.

The Colorado is a life-giving stream for much of the arid U.S. Southwest and for Mexico’s Mexicali Valley. Under a 1944 treaty, the U.S. promised to share the river for irrigation. Mexico built a dam one mile below the border, spider-webbed the once desolate Mexicali Valley with irrigation canals. Then in 1961, under the Wellton-Mohawk reclamation project in Arizona’s Yuma Desert, U.S. cotton growers began draining salty irrigation water from their soil—and flushed the residue back into the river, whose salt content rose from a tolerable 800 parts per 1,000,000 to more than 6,000. Mexicali crops withered, and the Mexican government estimated farm losses at $80 million.

The dispute, of course, gave agitators a fine anti-Yanqui talking point; in one demonstration, 4,000 campesinos marched noisily past Mexicali’s U.S. consulate, carrying a coffin covered with salt. Realizing that the U.S. was vulnerable under international law, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pressed hard for a solution. Under the new agreement—not a formal treaty —the U.S. will spend $5,000,000 to build a 13-mile drainage canal that will divert the salty water from the Wellton-Mohawk project into the Colorado River at a point safely below the Mexican Dam. If pollution remains dangerously high at the end of five years, the U.S. and Mexico will get together to figure out what else to do.

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