As part of a decentralized governance strategy under the influence of the World Bank, Mexico turned a greater focus on river basin councils as a principal feature of its water management structure. Reforms to Mexico’s National Water Law (LAN) in April 2004 strengthened the existing provisions of the LAN for a regional watershed approach. Of a national network of 25 major river basin councils whose creation is mandated in the legislation, three are located in the state of Sonora. A hierarchy of subregional and local watershed councils are located there as well.
The three Sonoran river basin councils (consejos de cuenca) are the Matape-Yaqui Council, the Rio Mayo Council, and the Alto Noroeste (Upper Northwest) Council, which includes watersheds in the northern part of Sonora. River basin councils are comprised of one representative from each of five major economic sectors, including urban, industrial, ranching, agriculture, and hydroelectric.
The councils discuss planning and coordination of water use and issues related to major river basins, thereby opening—at least in theory—new windows of possibility for the use of climate information and climate science to guide water use planning that could result in a more environmentally sustainable resolution of water problems and conflicts. This research explored the potential use of climate information by the river basin councils.
A research team that included Dr. Nicolás Pineda Pablos, professor of public policy studies at El Colegio de Sonora and a consultant on the NOAA grant, conducted approximately 35 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with water sector experts, including those responsible for development and implementation of the river basin councils in Sonora, members of the councils, and some who are observers of the river basin council process.
Research began in 2003 and final fieldwork was conducted in June 2006. The research process began with an extensive review of the international literature on river basin councils and integrated water resource management (IWRM) to help shape and formulate study objectives and questions. Subsequently, the research team conducted interviews in Hermosillo, Nogales (Sonora), Caborca, Ciudad Obregón, Navojoa, and Alamos. Interview subjects included National Water Commission (C.N.A.) officials, local water managers, academic water experts, local water and irrigation officials, members of river basin councils, and environmental groups.
On a general level, river basin councils are an essential component of an integrated water resource management (IWRM) strategy. IWRM is believed to lead to more environmentally sustainable outcomes, as water user sectors work together to find solutions and compromises on areas of conflict. The river basin councils in Sonora are only recently being formed, and because there is not a history of coordination and planning at the river basin level, implementation and agenda-setting has been slow. In addition, the composition of river basin councils is so comprehensive that even bringing the council together in a meeting of the full creates logistical problems, since some council members are rarely available for meeting attendance. The river basin councils also lack the formal jurisdiction within the appropriate legal frameworks to carry out recommendations, creating a major limiting factor in their ability to have a real impact on the issues under discussion. The lack of jurisdiction, in turn, makes council participants less willing to give time to a process which is likely to have only limited impacts on important issues.
Although in theory river basin council mechanisms seem to lend themselves to greater utilization of climate science to guide their mid-long term planning and coordination, the Sonoran cases do not provide evidence to support this idea. Sonoran river basin councils in the early stages have not called for use of climate science for the agenda items they have discussed. And even though the river basin councils ostensibly have a longer-term focus, in reality the Sonoran river basin councils have focused on finding resolutions to current issues rather than engaging in long-term planning or sustainability discussions.
River basins successfully engage water user sectors in participating in council deliberations, coordination, and planning, as set forth in the legal frameworks governing the river basin council composition. River basin council participation is based upon one-representative-per-sector; however this apportionment is not reflective of actual societal water use and is believed by some to be skewed and unfair. Government representation is also disproportionately high on river basin councils, compared with very limited representation allowed from the citizens’ sector. Marginal groups, such as the urban poor or the ejido farmers, are not represented on river basin councils.
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