The US/Mexican border is a place generally despised by the interiors of both nations. The general idea is that the border is to be exploited for whatever you can get out of it.
This has resulted in a condition for people who actually live on the border of being political orphans and their region being the object of shifting predatory projections. (1) If one spends time on the border, a thing that comes clear is that although it may be the most lawless place one will ever spend time, its informal customs are an extensive, elaborate and creative adaptations to its isolation from both countries. As the founder of El colegio de la frontera norte, Dr. Jorge Bustamante noted, the most difficult thing about the border is establishing the sense that it had its own time and space.
Calexico and Mexicali are reciprocal cities on the border of the US state of California and the Mexican state of Baja California Norte, of which Mexicali is the capital. They lie on the western border of the Colorado River Delta, which terminates at the top of the Gulf of California. River sediment in the region runs a mile deep.
Historically, the problem was to control the flow of water to this rich farming area bifurcated by a borderline. Two canals were built around the turn of the 20th century, one on the US side, which became the All-American Canal running west from the Colorado River, the other called the Alamo Canal, running west from the same river on the Mexican side. The All-American Canal opened up Imperial County to farming. The Alamo Canal, the creation of Harry Chandler of Los Angeles, opened up the Baja side, after a little accident that caused the river to veer west one year and create the Salton Sea. (2)
In the last several years, there have been extensive negotiations about Colorado River water, resulting in a deal whereby the upriver US states are supposed to get more of water and Southern California get less water. Meanwhile, Mexicali has grown to a population of more than a million, based on the the employment and productivity of its maquiladora/factories, and Calexico has grown to 40,000, also on the strength of the Mexicali economy.
Part of the great Colorado River settlement involved in California a deal whereby San Diego would get more water for development. Therefore, the All-American Canal is upgrading. One upgrade is a project to line with cement a 23-mile stretch near Calexico. (3) The cement lining will stop the canal from leaking water into the aquifer and dry up wetlands across the border, to which Mexican farmers now claim water rights. In country that gets three inches of rainfall a year, such matters take on an importance not widely understood in the national capitals.
Several interests in Colorado River water want all that water, now lost to the aquifer and the wetlands, which is reported by a San Diego newspaper to be enough to supply 134,000 homes in San Diego County. These interests include: the Central Arizona Water Conservation District; the states of California and Nevada; the Southern Nevada Water Authority; the San Diego County Water Authority; the Imperial Irrigation District; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; and the La Jolla, Rincon, San Pasqual, Pauma and Pala Bands of Mission Indians. (Each of these bands has a casino in San Diego County.)
Arrayed against this handful of water interests is mighty Calexico, which is suing to stop the canal-lining project on behalf of the Mexican farmers. The suit will be subsidized by vastly wealthier Mexicali.
"More than 90 percent of our sales tax revenue comes in from Mexicali," Calexico Mayor Alex Perrone said. "We live on the retail from Mexico." (4)
Unlined canal seepage, bi-national cooperation, aquifer recharge, wetlands, local farming strategies, large American water agencies and voracious development in San Diego County combine to make this an interesting case. Here is a region, which happens to be in two nations, defending its economic rights to continue an agricultural system that adapted to a certain mode of water conveyance for about a century, against a city that knows no limit and casino golf courses. Once again, the issue of what a canal really is comes forward, along with the rights of another economic community to defend what looks like a very thrifty local irrigation system against massive, speculative California growth.
The very least one ought to note is the giant sucking sound heard in Calexico is coming from a huge concentration of development and gambling wealth in San Diego County, and that just because it is there does not make it an infallible guide to land-use planning. Actually, in terms of the real future of agriculture in the West, we ought to be asking how these Mexican farmers manage to do so much with canal seepage. It is a far more significant human achievement than building another golf course.