The Borderplex region – El Paso, Juarez and Southern New Mexico – is unique in its size, location, and proximity.
El Paso, the 19th-largest city in the United States, and Juarez, the fifth-largest city in Mexico, are separated by the Rio Grande, which is no wider than a freeway. This region is known as the Paso del Norte (Pass of the North), the gap in the Southern Rockies where year-round, east-west and north-south passage is possible.
Like other border communities, the Borderplex is a hub of activity where residents of the United States and Mexico live, work, and play in close proximity, and where language, culture, social life, and business interact. Each of these communities has its own flavor, whether it’s the sprawl from San Diego to Tijuana, El Paso and its symbiosis with Juarez, or the South Texas communities and their neighbors in Mexico across the widening, brush-trimmed Rio Grande as it flows southeast, meets the broad river delta, and joins the Gulf of Mexico.
Billions of dollars in commercial goods are created in and cross through these southern border communities, which are home to millions of residents, but the infrastructure to support the trade, and more importantly, the people, has not kept pace with the growth.
This growth has accelerated since the 1990s, specifically, following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In that agreement, it was acknowledged that industrial and population growth put pressure on the land, water, and air of border communities. To address that, the North American Development Bank (NADB) and the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) were created in 1994 to identify, fund, and develop projects that would address the environmental and infrastructure needs in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
In March 2015, I was appointed by President Obama to the 10-member Board of Directors of the combined agencies, known as BECC-NADB. Last week, the Board met for our semi-annual meeting. This year, we certified 14 projects and approved $257 million in financing for their implementation. The projects range from a large wind energy project in Coahuila to a small water distribution project in Mesilla, New Mexico.
In addition, the Board moved forward with finalizing amendments to the BECC-NADB charter for their integration into a single entity and approved a resolution doubling the capital of the Bank—$450 million in paid-in capital and the remainder in callable capital—subject to the legislative authorization processes of both countries. These actions will enhance the capacity of the institutions to continue supporting environmental projects for several years.
To date, NADB has contracted $2.6 billion in loans and grants for 215 BECC-certified infrastructure projects, which have been aimed at supplying safe drinking water, adequately treating wastewater, properly disposing of solid waste, and improving air quality through street paving and clean energy generation. More recently, NADB has supported the development of renewable energy in the region through 26 projects, representing 1,562 megawatts (MW) of combined generation capacity. These projects are expected to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the displacement of an estimated 2.47 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year. The total investment represented by these 215 projects exceeds $7.6 billion.
In the Borderplex region, BECC and NADB have supported 27 certified projects with more than $230 million in financing, the majority in the water and wastewater sector. Overall, because of project development and financing assistance from these two institutions, water quality along the Rio Grande has improved significantly. In 20 years, wastewater treatment in Juarez alone has increased from zero to almost 100 percent, enhancing the quality of life for the residents of both sides of the Rio Grande.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley region has also seen dramatic improvements in reducing environmental hazards and increasing the potential for continued economic prosperity. As the region largely depends on industries such as agriculture, retail service, manufacturing, tourism, and commercial fishing as their main economic drivers, a clean and reliable water supply is integral. Since NADB’s inception, they have invested $337.6 million in over 30 projects, providing first-time water or sewer service access to over 30,000 residents.
BECC-NADB is a model of how to solve problems cooperatively, and this is the kind of thinking we need more of when it comes to border issues. For example, while we’re spending $18 billion a year on so-called “border security” at a time when the flow of migrants is near an all-time low, we could invest one-third of those dollars – $6 billion – to renovate and expand the 25 ports of entry. That $6 billion figure is less than the estimated annual loss resulting from congested and outdated ports. Remember, Mexico is by far the largest export market for Texas, at $103 billion in 2013, and nationally is second only to Canada. Exports alone account for more than 10 million U.S. jobs.
I look forward to building on the achievements of BECC-NADB, and other efforts that help identify and fund key U.S.-Mexico border projects for our border communities, which are so culturally and economically intertwined.