One of the most significant impacts of global warming is the reduction of water availability around the world. According to the United Nations, 26% of the world’s population does not have access to safe drinking water and 46% lack access to basic sanitation. Only 0.5% of the water on Earth is usable, and the tap is rapidly drying due to climate change. On top of that, current policies and management regulations are proving to be unsustainable. Dr. Rosario Sanchez, a senior research scientist at the Texas Water Resource Institute and an associate faculty member of the Water Management and Hydrological Sciences at Texas A&M University, has been working toward the proper management of water resources along the US-Mexico border.
Inaccessibility exists in many communities across the United States, which may come as a surprise to many citizens. Millions of people who have their homes in border towns face this shortage every day.
The Texas Water Resource Institute (TWRI) is a state agency working to improve living conditions through project development and management, watershed and aquifer assessment and planning, bacterial source tracking, water conservation research, professional training, public outreach and more.
“At the Texas Water Resource Institute, we look at communities and configure ways to implement outreach education and training that fits their specific needs. Utilizing the scientific work of Texas A&M University, we assess and assist state agencies and community leaders to better understand the scientific pieces of water resource management at a community level.”
Dr. Sanchez describes how her interest in science was something that developed during the course of her higher education. At the time, Texas A&M University had just introduced a new program in Water Management and Hydrological Sciences. Dr. Sanchez had the opportunity to be part of the first generation of students involved in this specific program, which is now one of the top programs in the nation in the subject.
While she did not have relevant scientific experience, she wanted to take a chance and expand her horizons. So, she embarked on a journey to become an expert in “science, engineering, geology, basically, all the hats you have to wear when it comes to being an expert on water management and hydrological science.”
Dr. Sanchez describes how the program became her entire life, as she felt like she had to compete with her classmates, who all had extensive scientific backgrounds. She was motivated to take on whatever was necessary to succeed in the scientific field of water.
“I was surrounded by individuals with backgrounds in civil engineering, biology, geology and climatology, because it was, and still is, an interdisciplinary program. What helped me find my niche was my background and knowledge in international relations, specifically between Mexico and the U.S. I was the only one with that background.”
Before entering the program, Dr. Sanchez had worked for the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Mexico for consulates in Arizona and Colorado. There, she worked on public policy, immigration issues, and economic and political concerns. The knowledge and expertise gained from that work would aid her greatly in her education and, eventually, a career in water management at transboundary level.
“I added the element of water into international relations, specifically policies between the U.S. and Mexico and the shared water sources that are utilized by both nations. The social, economic, and political aspects of water management became my strength as my education and career progressed.”
Level of Transboundariness of Transboundary Aquifers between Mexico and Texas, Sanchez et al. 2018
Her knowledge in the field also led to her strength in assessing transboundary water issues between Mexico and the United States, shared water resources, and shared groundwater systems, which Dr. Sanchez described as being much more complicated than policies regarding surface water.
Her focus and drive are the heart of TWRI’s mission to restore, sustain, and protect Texas’ water resources. The organization hopes to educate individuals, communities and state related agencies,, and expand its knowledge around other partnering institutions around the world.
Dr. Sanchez is also the principal investigator of the Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act Program, which works to “integrate research and data on transboundary aquifers between Mexico and Texas.”
She leads the transboundary groundwater research team with 15 years of academic and professional experience on transboundary issues between Mexico and the United States. She has been working and publishing on transboundary water issues at an international and binational level since 2006, according to TWRI.
“Another initiative is the Permanent Forum of Bi-National Waters, which was originally developed by TWRI, but now it’s an independent nonprofit organization that serves as a network for scientists that work with water issues at the border. It’s not just groundwater anymore; it’s surface water, climate change, and everything that relates to water. We have bi-national groups that work together on specific projects and initiatives.”
Dr. Sanchez leads the nonprofit organization. When it comes to specific issues regarding water resources at the border of the U.S. and Mexico, Dr. Sanchez explains how she could talk forever regarding the history and problems that are continuously impacting the region.
“Both of our international bases are under dire conditions. For example, the Rio Grande has lost 80% of its natural flow, and the Colorado River needs to reduce its water use by at least 25% to avoid critical levels.”
“To put it simply, there are shortages everywhere along the border. Border cities are running out of water, and communities are paying the most money to have access to safe water. I wouldn’t even call it a crisis. It’s beyond that at this point, we’ve reached a constant critical condition of water scarcity.”
In 1944, the U.S. and Mexico agreed on a treaty over shared surface water resources, which did not cover anything regarding groundwater. The treaty also did not specify what to do during a permanent drought condition, which we are currently in. “It has considerations in place for extraordinary drought conditions, but unfortunately, we’ve passed that point. We need new policies for the new conditions.”
Mexico and the U.S. have been able to agree on certain surface water allocations since both sides recognize the imminent water shortages. Dr. Sanchez explains that the two nations are continuously working together to address issues regarding surface allocation, especially in Mexico, which is projected to not have enough water to last through the next natural cycle of water, which is set to end in two years.
This is where Dr. Sanchez’s background in international relations truly comes into play. Her experience in communications, combined with her scientific knowledge of the current policies, regulations, and systems regarding water allocation, makes her the perfect person to take on the challenges border communities face.
“The challenges are bigger than our capacity, but the opportunities are huge. Opportunities for advancement, investments, collaboration, and overall, the opportunity to do things better to improve everyone’s well-being at a transboundary level.”
“When there is permanent water scarcity, the real crisis isn’t actually about the quantity of water, but rather the quality. The less access to water there is, the less quality water there is to go around, which leaves many border communities completely vulnerable. When you consider the fact that populations on both sides of the border are also continuously growing at high rates, the problem becomes exponentially worse.”
The critical question is, what can be done to protect our nation’s water resources and related environmental services?
“The challenge is going to be huge within the next 20 to 30 years. Currently, it’s expected that Mexico, the U.S., and Chile, to be specific, will be the most water-stressed countries in North and South America. It will not be easy; it’s honestly a ticking bomb in the border region between Mexico and the US, especially when it comes to groundwater, which is unregulated. We need institutional changes and improvements on policies and regulations that can better align with the dire situation we are in when it comes to access to quality water and proper allocation to every community.”
Many people recognize and understand the severity of climate change as it continues to impact our world. However, when it comes to the specifics of water allocation, the issue is not a major piece of the conversation, despite its potential to have the most immediate impact on people throughout our nation.
“The power if awareness has been underestimated, and the public isn’t being informed, especially in border communities. You need to go out of your way to learn about it, and while everyone should keep themselves as educated as possible when it comes to issues that impact our entire world, people are living their own lives and have their own issues to deal with. However, when we can, it’s important to learn and understand what’s really happening around us.
The information is forever changing. The U.S. at least has greater access to information in terms of its openness. Mexico isn’t as lucky, and a lot of the communities there are left in the dark regarding issues of the environment, specifically when it comes to water.
At the TWRI, part of our main objectives is to make all of our research, data, and information available to those who look for it. Staying informed is a major part of what we do, and the more members of communities we can educate, the more we can keep this conversation going and, ideally, get it to a point where more is done with transparency and useful data.
You can become aware, but in order for one to change their water habits, it takes more than that. One can be aware that their community needs to save water but will still need to shower, do their family’s laundry, and overall do what they need to do to maintain their needs.”
The alienation of humans from nature has accelerated within the past couple of decades. People turn on their faucets, and there’s water; our environment provides the raw materials for us to survive in an industrialized world. We depend on it, and it depends on us, so we must protect each other.
“We assume water is infinite—when it’s not, we have the same amount that we did tens of millions of years ago; we’ve just changed the ways in which we distribute it. We all have a role, we all need water, and we all use water, but there are still hundreds of millions of people who don’t have access to clean, safe water. It’s a paradox we live in. So, what do we do?”
Changes in policy and regulation are necessary, as is the case with most aspects of climate change. The leaders of our country and our communities need to take charge and take steps to lead real changes at a macro scale with the corresponding accountability.
The situation has gotten to the point where it is essential to stay informed in general, especially within your community. However, leaders need to also develop those legal, economic, and political incentives for water conservation, and not just for the general population. Agriculture accounts for 70% – 80% of the world’s water use.
In the United States alone, vast amounts of food go to waste every year, and we can easily calculate how much water was used to grow and produce that food. These areas of usage need attention if more stringent laws are to be passed.
Dr. Sanchez’s research is essential to the larger movement to combat global warming. She puts in a lot of effort to inform the public and devise strategies for our state and community leaders to implement policies and regulations to help those in border communities and deal with scarce natural resources every day.
People like her are at the forefront of the movement for substantive change, giving a voice to those affected by current legislation regarding water access and use.
To learn more about the important work Dr. Rosario Sanchez and the Texas Water Resource Institute do to provide safe water in communities along the US-Mexico border, check out the organization’s website by clicking here.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.