EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Newly appointed federal officials who are not familiar with the U.S.-Mexico border often must learn not only the job but the culture as well. That’s not the case with Maria Elena Giner.
The newly appointed commissioner of the U.S. Section of the International Water & Boundary Commission has lived half her life in Mexico and the other half on this side of the border. That’s an important asset in a job that requires constant cross-border interaction, she acknowledges.
“I used to take a lot of U.S. officials to tour the facilities. I used to tell them we are ground zero here. We see the problem, we live the problem, we breathe the problem,” Giner said. “Seeing that on a day-to-day basis creates a lot of sensitivity to make a difference to make a change, especially when you know you have the tools.”
President Joe Biden last month appointed the California native – who grew up in Juarez, Mexico – as the second woman and first Latina to head the IBWC. Pending issues could include anything from perennial sewage flows from the Tijuana River in Mexico to the California coast, to repairs at South Texas levees.
Whatever the challenges, Giner says she’s confident her new team and her extensive network of contacts can handle them.
“At BECC, I got a lot of experience understanding the regulatory process across states in the U.S. and in Mexico at the federal level as well,” she said. “It’s also given me a good understanding of the intricacies and cultural reasons why things are done. It’s also given me a lot of contacts […] so I’m able to access information or knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I hadn’t worked and lived in Mexico.”
The last time the IBWC garnered international attention was when Mexico last October struggled to make good on quinquennial water payments to the United States. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador ended up transferring Mexico’s water rights from an international reservoir after farmers in Chihuahua commandeered La Boquilla, a dam he was going to tap into to settle the debt.
Giner said she believes in being proactive and letting the experts talk to each other before bosses or politicians have to get involved.
“When techs talk to tech people, they seem to get things done,” she said. “I’m hoping that we have not only commonalities but also a common vision going forward and resolving things. That’s how we avoid escalating things to a higher level. This is all about collaboration.”
And, taking a page from her work at BECC, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, Giner said she plans to stay in touch with stakeholders: From water utilities to local governments on both sides of the border.
“One of the things we did (at BECC) was provide first-time sanitation, particularly in Mexico. When I started at the BEEC only 26% of the Mexican population across the border had wastewater service. By the time I left, they were close to over 90%. So that was about 700 million gallons a day of raw sewage that used to flow between the two countries,” she said.
The end game at BECC and now at the IBWC is to bring about a better environmental outcome through the management of resources, in the latter’s case, water resources.
Giner’s education includes a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Loyola Marymount University, a Master of Business Administration from the University of Texas at El Paso, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Texas at Austin.
She is also a registered professional engineer, first-generation college graduate, and daughter of an immigrant.
The International Boundary & Water Commission operates flood control levees, international storage reservoirs, diversion dams, wastewater treatment plants, and boundary monuments at various locations on the U.S.-Mexico border.