Leon C. Metz

RIO GRANDE RECTIFICATION PROJECT. With the completion in 1916 of Elephant Butte Dam near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 120 miles north of El Paso, the Mesilla valley in southern New Mexico and the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso valley in Chihuahua and Texas were assured of water for irrigation. However, since the dam tamed the river, the stream stopped flooding and could not clean its own channel. The bed filled with silt, and uncontrolled wanderings not only wasted water but destroyed crops, increased scrub vegetation, and shifted the international boundary. When little water flowed through the river the channel still marked the border, but that line was becoming more and more difficult to find.

An analysis called for straightening and trenching the Rio Grande from the lower limit of Cordova Island downstream to Box Canyon, below Fort Quitman. International bridges would be installed. Bancos would be divided. On February 1, 1933, the United States and Mexico signed the Rio Grande Rectification Treaty, which called for construction of a floodway 590 feet wide and a normal flow channel with a bottom width of sixty-six feet between parallel levees averaging 7½ feet in height. The levees doubled as maintenance roadways and fences against future floods. The middle of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande within the rectified channel was made the international boundary, and each nation yielded about 3,500 acres to the other. The original plan was completed in 1938 at a cost of $5 million, 88 percent of which the United States paid. The International Boundary Commission, later renamed the International Boundary and Water Commission, was given responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the rectified channel.

Engineers removed the curves from the river, shortening the segment from 155.2 miles to 85.6 miles, and divided the bancos in accord with the 1905 banco treaty. Toll-free bridges were erected between Ysleta, Texas, and Zaragoza, Chihuahua; between Fabens, Texas, and Guadalupe, Chihuahua; and between Fort Hancock, Texas, and El Porvenir, Chihuahua.

The treaty also called for the construction of Caballo Dam, twenty-two miles south of Elephant Butte Dam. It captured water released to generate electricity (but wasted for irrigation) from Elephant Butte and trapped rainwater that fell between the two reservoirs. A subsequent Rio Grande Canalization Project straightened the Rio Grande in New Mexico between Caballo Dam and El Paso. See also CHAMIZAL DISPUTE.


L. M. Lawson, "Stabilizing the Rio Grande," Scientific American, August 1936. Jerry E. Mueller, Restless River (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1975). G. Frederick Reinhardt, "Rectification of the Rio Grande in the El Paso-Júarez Valley," American Journal of International Law 31 (January 1937). Charles A. Timm, The International Boundary Commission (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1941).

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Leon C. Metz, "RIO GRANDE RECTIFICATION PROJECT," accessed July 23, 2019,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on January 25, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Get this week's most popular Handbook of Texas articles delivered straight to your inbox