‘The border matters.’ A Q&A with the new head of International Boundary and Water Commission
President Joe Biden appointed Maria-Elena Giner, a civil engineer and long-time leader on border sanitation projects, as the new commissioner of the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission. The federal agency – binationally operated by the United States and Mexico — jointly manages water treaties on the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers, flood control, international reservoirs and pollution.
Giner is the first Latina, and the second woman, to lead the commission on the U.S. side, replacing Jayne Harkins, who was appointed in 2018. Mexico designated Giner’s counterpart a week ago. Adriana Beatriz Carolina Resendez Maldonado will replace Humberto Marengo Mogollon at the agency, which is known in Mexico as CILA. This is the first time two women will lead both sections of the IBWC.
Giner was born in Los Angeles, but spent much of her childhood in Ciudad Juárez. She attended Loretto Academy in El Paso for high school, then pursued a civil engineering degree in California. She is an alumna of Loyola Marymount University, received a master’s in business administration at University of Texas at El Paso, and received a doctoral degree in water and public policy from the University of Texas at Austin.
In 2010, she was appointed by the United States and Mexican governments to head the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, which built up environmental projects on both sides of the border.
El Paso Matters sat down with Giner in her first week at the IBWC. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
El Paso Matters: What values are you bringing into this position?
Giner: My whole life has been dedicated to working in public service, where I’ve had the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of residents. Some of the work I’ve done is provide first-time water and wastewater in New Mexico, providing first-time paving in an area or providing residential solar, for instance. One of my fundamental values is this deep desire for servant leadership. I’ve worked along the U.S.-Mexico border for over 20 years, with over 100 communities, and implemented about $9 billion worth of infrastructure, primarily water and wastewater service. I have relationships, I have knowledge and I have a passion for the mission of the institution.
El Paso Matters: How do you think the border has changed you and your work over the years?
Giner: I’m an engineer by background. One of the things that I’ve learned, my work is not just about pouring concrete, putting in rebar and maintaining infrastructure. The value of my work comes from having an ultimate goal — a result. I’ll give you an example: When giving people first-time service of water, wastewater, the objective is not building a facility. It’s about addressing an environmental condition, changing the health impacts that come along with it. I think the border has changed me in the sense that my role is that through engineering — and in this case, with this agency — through water diplomacy, is to benefit the residents of the border.
El Paso Matters: Failing or nonexistent wastewater infrastructure on the border has long been a threat to people’s health but also threatens our shared water resources. Are there any changes of priorities or methods at the IBWC that you will take to address those threats?
Giner: There’s a lot of work that has been done by previous commissioners. Even though we have a new commissioner, we still have the same stakeholders. We’re working on issues related to the San Diego region, in terms of trans boundary flows, or the Nogales region.
Here in El Paso, our big issues are trans-boundary flows of water pollution, sanitation and monuments. I think a lot of the priorities extend beyond an administration. Where differences arise, is the leadership. I probably am one of the commissioners that has had more knowledge on the border. I feel that even though I’m learning about the position, I also have a vision as to what I want to do with the agency.
El Paso Matters: What do you think you can do using this agency?
Giner: My vision for this organization is to ensure that our facilities are resilient. And we have the internal tools to adequately maintain those facilities. That translates into money. Because just like everybody else, we have deteriorating infrastructure. Ensuring that we have resilient infrastructure, is ensuring our stakeholders are very knowledgeable about what the risks are in their regions, and what the needs are. And so they can advocate with the federal government — where we get our funding from — in order to ensure that this institution is able to best serve their needs.
El Paso Matters: There were some drawdowns in the budget in previous years. Do you think you have the resources to develop infrastructure?
Giner: There’s never enough money, obviously. In my first year of office, I really want to do an asset management plan that includes risk and resilience. It will help us prioritize and answer questions like, ‘how much do we need? And when do we need it?’
So, do we have enough? No, we don’t have enough, we never have enough. Do we have what we need in the moment that we need? I can’t give that answer right now.
El Paso Matters: How do you intend to meet the challenge of less water in our binational rivers due to climate change?
Giner: I think that’s something that so many of us are grappling with in the water industry, not just here. Cities have diversified their water portfolios, they don’t just have one source of water, they have multiple sources of water. El Paso is a great example. They’ve got salt water, they’ve got river water, their groundwater, they’ve got reused water.
I want to work with our cities on either adjustments and embracing best practices. What can we learn from each other?
The reality is, we manage a finite resource. The (IBWC) does not have a diversified water portfolio, we’ve got only one set of water in our portfolio. Our ability to negotiate is within the framework of the treaties and the minutes. There’s only so much we can do. There’s a perfect example of collaboration, on the Colorado River, where you’ve got funding coming in from states in the U.S. and Mexico conserving water, so we have more water in the river. We are using that opportunity, now we have to make it work. We have to replicate it.
El Paso Matters: Anything else about your vision for the agency you’d like to share?
Giner: This one border, this one region, is very important to the United States from an economic standpoint. There’s mutual cooperation in terms of economic development. Manufacturing is the most obvious point, but cultural growth is another factor. I want to lead an IBWC that contributes to the growth of the border, because the border matters.