Webcast Recap

At the U.S.-Mexico border, environmental degradation is a chief concern affecting both countries' shared watersheds, "airsheds," and greater ecosystems. At the same time, continuing population stresses in the U.S. Southwest are further aggravating the area's perennially acute water needs, while climate change is threatening to make the region even hotter and drier. Compounding these ecological challenges and their consequent health risks, the poverty that afflicts both sides of the border appears largely intractable, at least in the short-to-medium term. Yet the region and its shared challenges also present unique opportunities for enhanced U.S.-Mexico collaboration, particularly in the areas of joint environmental management, cross-border emergency response, and renewable energy development.

To discuss these issues, the Mexico Institute co-sponsored on June 17 the presentation of the report, A Blueprint for Action on the U.S.-Mexico Border, the thirteenth annual report of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board (GNEB), an independent federal advisory committee coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency that advises government on border environmental practices.

Overview of the report

Dolores Wesson, Designated Federal Officer, GNEB, formally convened the meeting and gave a short history of the board and its mission. GNEB Chair Paul Ganster gave an overview of the report, noting it contains 63 actionable policy recommendations in the areas of climate adaptation, air quality, and renewable energy, among others.

Chief among the report's policy recommendations, Ganster cited the need for better coordination among and between federal, state, and local agencies at the border. He also cited the report's support of a transboundary environmental impact assessment (TEIA) process "to address transnational (environmental) impacts, and encourage transborder cooperation on environmental infrastructure projects." (The GNEB report suggests that the trilateral Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC), comprising Mexico, Canada, and the United States, "explore such an agreement.") Ganster added that U.S. border communities require dedicated focus from government in ways that non-border communities might not because of their unique and poverty-aggravated environmental challenges.

Michelle DePass, assistant administrator, Office of International and Tribal Affairs, EPA, said that the board's findings would be used in the search for solutions to border-region environmental challenges. She also noted recent advances in tackling such challenges, such as EPA-coordinated efforts to reduce the serious environmental threat posed by heaps of waste tires scattered throughout the region. Additionally, she discussed the agency's U.S.-Mexico Environmental Program, known as Border 2012, a binational collaboration to improve the environment and protect the health of border-region residents, citing its successful involvement in efforts to clean up the Metales y Derivados industrial waste site in Baja California.

Nancy Sutley, chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that the border region is poised to become part of a "clean energy revolution" because of its supply of renewable resources. She lauded the report for encouraging collaboration with Mexico and said the report's recommendations have a special significance because they are issued by individuals who actually live and work in the border region.

Binational collaboration is necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and to resolve shared environmental problems at the border, said Enrique Escorza of the Political Affairs Section of the Mexican Embassy. Escorza added that the need for collaboration has finally eclipsed prior impediments to such collaboration, such as concerns about violations of national sovereignty. "The border throws us together," he said. He added that Mexico has a new understanding about shared resources. "It's not about 'our' water; it's about shared watersheds and our working as partners," he said.

Roundtable discussion: A federal, state, and local stakeholder perspective

Duncan Wood, acting chair, Department of International Relations, Instituto Tecnólogico Autónomo de México (ITAM), noted that the border presents enormous opportunities in the area of renewable energy investment, which is addressed in the report. The border is a unique region, he added, and ecosystems overlap rather than respect national boundaries. He drew linkages between the report's policy options for improving the border and two pillars of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation policy: the development of a 21st century border where security and trade concerns complement one another, and the construction of resilient border communities.

Russell Frisbie, Washington liaison, International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), gave an overview of the IBWC and discussed the need for a binational federal-to-federal memorandum of understanding on cross-border emergency-management response. The development of such a protocol can help first responders in both countries more easily cross the border to provide disaster relief, as well as to battle wildfires, floods, and other catastrophes.

Stephen Niemeyer, manager for Border Affairs, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, stressed the need for a TEIA tool. He indicated that the diplomatic challenges of trilaterally negotiating such a tool within the framework of the NAFTA-mandated CEC should not preclude a bilateral tool between the United States and Mexico. "The sooner the U.S. and Mexico can do something ... the better," he said.

Allyson Siwik, executive director, Gila Resources Information Project (New Mexico), discussed the need to improve regional air quality and noted that new government ozone standards could put much of the border out of compliance. She seconded the report's recommendation for a successful Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Program, which would, according to the GNEB report, "scientifically characterize aquifers that underlie the international boundary and encourage other efforts to improve data gathering and accessibility for border water resources, such as harmonization of standards." Siwik added that sustainable and well-formulated policy requires input from a diverse range of border-region stakeholders. She stressed an ongoing need to environmentally assess the impact of security fencing along the length of the border.

Ann Marie A. Wolf, president, Sonora Environmental Research Institute (Arizona), reiterated the need for binational cooperation on shared environmental challenges. She noted the need for upgrades to water and wastewater systems in border sister cities, some of which suffer regular overflows from flooding. She remarked on the region's unique environmental and health challenges, citing a university study indicating higher cancer prevalence among women on the U.S.-Mexico border.

John Wood, county commissioner, Precinct 2, Cameron County, Texas, seconded the need for a binational emergency management response mechanism, to facilitate cross-border disaster relief. He also noted advances in renewable energy development, such as the creation of new wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico. He blamed security fencing with preventing the natural movement of animal species, while not effectively deterring unauthorized migration. He echoed previously mentioned concerns on the border region's poverty, saying that, taken collectively, the border counties would rank fifth among all states in unemployment and 40th in per capita income.

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088