Legal Strategies to Address Grassland Water Security

Grasslands are a nature-based solution to address climate change. At the global level grasslands absorb up to 42 tons of CO2 per hectare, capturing up to 32 percent of the planet's CO2. Although key to climate action and water security, grasslands are considered among the most threatened ecosystems in the world.
Cuatro Ciénegas
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This blog was written with Oscar Leal, director of the Water Program at Pronatura Noreste, and Andrea Becerra (NRDC).

Grasslands are a nature-based solution to address climate change. At the global level grasslands absorb up to 42 tons of CO2 per hectare, capturing up to 32 percent of the planet's CO2. Although key to climate action and water security, grasslands are considered among the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Some of Mexico’s most important grasslands are found in Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion.

Watch the video below for more about the importance of grasslands. 

One of the major threats to this invaluable ecosystem is water insecurity. Surface reduction of natural grasslands in Mexico has a direct relationship with activities that extract water from aquifers. In regions with available water resources, there has been an expansion of agricultural and livestock activities, leading to the degradation of natural pastures because of land use change for agricultural uses.

To confront this scenario, a strategic combination of legal, administrative, technical and economic approaches, aimed at regulating the volumes of water that legitimately correspond to productive activities, is required.

Sustainable aquifer management is a national challenge. In Mexico, aquifers contribute around 52 percent of the water volume needed for cities where 60 million people live. Of the 653 aquifers in Mexico, 32 have saline soils or brackish water, 18 have salty marine water intrusion and 105 are overexploited. All of this is compounded by climate change, which makes water an increasingly vulnerable and scarce resource.

Covering the Issue from the Source: the Case of Cuatro Ciénegas

The Cuatro Cienégas Valley is home to a unique and important wetland in the Chihuahuan Desert. Unfortunately, the valley ecosystems are in danger of disappearing due to a lack of water exploitation regulation. To confront this problem, Pronatura Noreste, a Mexican NGO, designed and implemented a strategy to strengthen the technical, administrative and legal processes that provide information on the availability of aquifers and their concession titles. To do so, they compared data from the Public Registry of Water Rights, while also promoting the sustainable use of water resources. They implemented a legal strategy that gets to the root of the problem, and that could be replicable throughout Mexico and around the world, since the overexploitation of groundwater resources is a global challenge.

The result of Pronatura Noreste’s analysis showed that more than half of the concession titles granted until 2018 (84 out of 156) had registration errors related to their location. Meaning that there was an underestimation of aquifer availability, creating an imminent overexploitation by 5.95 million cubic meters, and causing the collapse of aquatic ecosystems. This puts the population that depends on these water resources at risk.

Because of these risks, Pronatura Noreste urgently applied legal mechanisms to avoid further over-concession of the aquifer, in the process promoting an indirect protection in 2018 against the National Water Commission (CONAGUA). The protection obtained a favorable ruling in March 2019. A federal judge granted definitive suspension due to omission by CONAGUA for issuing the guidelines and provisions to allow use or exploitation of the national waters referred to in article four of the decree that established the Cuatro Ciénegas Valley as a regulated area. Due to this resolution, the water authority is obliged not to issue new concessions and/or assignments for use or exploitation of national waters with respect to the protected area of ​​the Cuatro Ciénegas Valley. This judicial act was a milestone for water security and establishes a transcendental legal precedent in matters of omission in the management of Mexico’s natural resources.

To learn more about this important case study, click on the video below. 

Expansion of this Work around Chihuahua

60 percent of the water consumed in the state of Chihuahua comes from aquifers. According to analyses carried out by Pronatura Noreste using data from the Public Registry of Water Rights, in Chihuahua 22,301 concession titles have been granted. The agricultural sector is the main groundwater user with 90 percent of the total volume assigned, in contrast with the national average of 70 percent. This situation demonstrates the importance of underground sources to maintain agricultural production in the region, as well as the water pressure used by this productive activity, so any initiative that aims to regularize concession titles would have to be primarily directed towards agricultural users.

In the Grassland Priority Conservation Area (GPCA), Valles Centrales in Chihuahua, there is an annual 6 percent loss of grasslands (a figure that only represents loss to agricultural land), and projections show that grasslands in this area could disappear completely by 2025 (Pool et al., 2013).

Due to the importance of groundwater for the conservation of the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, an analysis of the aquifers and concession titles was carried out in Valles Centrales GPCA. This area is made up of 18 aquifers or geohydrological units. In 2011, 8 aquifers presented overexploitation problems, and the number has been increasing. In 2018, the published availability in the Official Gazette of the Federation showed that aquifers with overexploitation problems increased from 8 to 12. This analysis identified that the concession titles granted in the aquifers in the Valles Centrales GPCA extract 967.1 million cubic meters per year from underground sources, constituting 39 percent of the state. 12 percent of the records have errors related to their location and/or registration; this error translates into a volume of 115 million cubic meters per year, without accounting for irregular withdrawals.

This analysis also revealed that in 9 aquifers with water deficits, there are currently 71,026 million cubic meters per year pending titling. In order to stop the deficit in these aquifers from worsening, it is imperative to generate actions that prevent new grant titles until the necessary corrections are made to the concession titles.

Next Steps

The results of this analysis demonstrate the necessity of a detailed review of concession titles from the Public Registry of Water Rights. It is necessary to identify and correct inconsistencies in order to obtain reliable data regarding the availability of groundwater, and thus establish strategies for sustainable water management.

The administrative irregularities found offer a foundation to develop a comprehensive legal strategy that stops illegal water extractions and guarantees the rule of law, and grants certainty to users who have a concession title.

Ultimately, it is necessary to develop strategies and apply laws to improve the conservation of the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands and ecosystems in general. To that end, creating alliances between different sectors, and even countries, can be an important tool for sharing ideas and strategies to drive the change we need to promote sustainable practices and protect the water resources that supply our unique and critical biodiversity.

NRDC works with American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and Pronatura Noreste (PNE) to conserve and restore grasslands in the Chihuahuan Desert. Together with our colleagues, we work to cultivate greater awareness of the importance of grasslands and to support the preservation of habitat and community resilience in these important areas. To learn more about the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands, visit our story map, and follow # EnArmoníaConLosPastizales on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also learn about the work our colleagues are leading, including this Pronatura Noreste video on the importance of grassland species and this blog from ABC on the threat of large agricultural projects.

Cited Studies

Pool D., Panjabi A., Macias-Duarte A. & Solhjemc D. 2013. Rapid expansion of croplands in Chihuahua, Mexico threatens declining North American grassland bird species. Biological Con-servation 170, 274–281.

De la Maza, M., Banda, I., Mendoza, G., Leal, O. and Rendón G. 2018. Report on the state of the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands: A management perspective. Pronatura Noreste, AC 58 pp.