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Water tussle at US-Mexico border

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent, 6/19/2001

Rio Bravo, Mexico - Francisco Medrano Canto pointed a bony arm at his sorghum field, a wasteland of sun-blackened stalks barely four inches high, and let out a long, angry sigh.

''It's a huge injustice,'' the farmer said of the government's intention to release 456 billion gallons of Rio Grande water to Texas from two dams straddling the US-Mexico border.

The hard-fought decision stems from a 1944 treaty that governs the use of water from the river and half a dozen tributaries. At stake is a liquid that has become as precious as gold for millions of farmers on both sides of the once-mighty Rio Grande.

Following almost a decade of drought and rising demand for water, the river has become so dry that this year, for the first time in memory, it has actually stopped flowing 300 yards short of the Gulf of Mexico.

''Water has become a major issue, and this drought has only focused attention'' on the problem, said Glenn Jarvis, a lawyer in McAllen, Texas, who specializes in water management. He said Mexico has made its problems worse because it sought to stave off the inevitable over the last 10 years, while officials in Texas pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into water conservation efforts.

Since 1992, Mexico has cited the drought, now in its eighth year, to avoid releasing Texas' full share of 110 billion gallons per year from the reservoirs. The reserves are stored in two mammoth projects under international control: the Falcon Dam, about 80 miles upriver from McAllen; and the nearby Amistad Reservoir. But mounting complaints from Texas farmers, who say Mexico's recalcitrance has cost them $400 million a year, primarily in lost sugar cane and citrus crops, have pushed the issue to the front burner.

While few challenge Mexico's obligation to comply with the treaty, the strain on farmers in northeastern Tamaulipas state could have lasting repercussions in the United States. Told they will have to survive without irrigation water, a growing number of Mexican farmers have abandoned their fields and turned to the more profitable smuggling of drugs and migrants, local residents and human rights workers said.

Mexican officials are aware of the domestic fallout of releasing the water. President Vicente Fox at first opposed paying the water debt this year, saying there just wasn't enough available. But in March he met with President Bush in Washington and agreed to release the first installment of 195 billion gallons by July 31 and to come up with a plan to deliver the rest by the end of the year. The deadline for complying with the treaty is October 2002.

The move has infuriated the 15,000 Mexican farmers directly affected by the water crunch. They filed suit last month against Mexico's National Water Commission, demanding reimbursement of $110 for each acre of crops lost to the water shortage. The farmers, who live in an area stretching 100 miles from Rio Bravo to the Gulf of Mexico, will have to forget about irrigating crops for at least three years while Mexico pays off its debt.

The water debt is figured based on the previous five-year period, in this case 1992-97. And specialists estimated Mexico will owe another large installment after the current five-year cycle ends in 2002.

''It's not fair. We, too, need water. Not just Texas,'' said Juana Perales, 42, a caretaker on a 500-acre farm outside Rio Bravo, just downstream from McAllen. She stared at the endless stretch of blackened corn that spells financial disaster for her family. She said the owner of the farm told her husband that after losing his harvest, he could not afford to pay them this year.

''If there's no water here, what will we do?'' she asked. Out of desperation, the couple recently sent their 15-year-old daughter to Houston to work illegally to help the family.

Texas farmers have little sympathy for the Mexicans' plight. The Texans said that Mexico's refusal to release the water has pushed them to the brink of financial ruin, and that poor water management on the Mexican side, not the drought, has caused the water shortage.

''We've really been on the edge,'' said Ray Prewett, general manager for Texas Citrus Mutual, which represents 500 citrus growers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the area of Texas hardest hit by the water shortage. ''We just don't have any margin of safety.''

He faulted the Mexican government for failing to develop long-term water conservation projects. New techniques that recycle water and minimize losses due to evaporation have helped Texas farmers reduce their water use, while the demand in Mexico has continued to rise.

''They can talk about it being a people issue, but it's really about what they do with their irrigation projects,'' Prewett said from his office in Mission, Texas.

Texas water specialists are in the midst of drafting 50-year plans for each of the state's 16 ''water regions.'' The plan for the Lower Rio Grande Valley alone will cost $900 billion in projects such as desalination plants. But Jarvis, the lawyer who drafted plans for the project, said it's a price taxpayers have no choice but to pay.

''I think people are realizing that we have to spend more on water, because it's a basic human need,'' he said.

Mexican officials, meanwhile, blamed budget constraints for the serious water problems facing the country's 35 largest cities and nearly all farming areas. The director of the National Water Commission, Cristobal Jaime Jaquez, recently asked Congress to more than double his budget from $1.5 billion to $3.3 billion and proposed increasing user fees by 50 percent. But critics said that the money would be wasted without a structured, long-term strategy for its use.

The Texas plan, the first of its kind in the United States, would not be possible without one key institution in Texas water management: the water master. Created in the late 1970s following a 20-year legal suit involving thousands of complaints, the court-appointed water master, Carlos Rubenstein, is in charge of deciding how every gallon of water from the Rio Grande gets divvied up.

''There's a very careful pecking order. Cities have priority, and what's left over goes to agriculture, said Jarvis. ''It's not like having to worry on the US side about Laredo pumping all the water so McAllen doesn't get any.''

Technically, the same rules apply in Mexico. But they are often violated in practice.

One frequently cited example is the El Cuchillo dam near the industrial city of Monterrey. Seeking to please his electorate, former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993 ordered construction of the dam along the San Juan River to provide water to the city, 180 miles southwest of McAllen. Monterrey is the country's second-largest metropolis and capital of Salinas de Gortari's home state of Nuevo Leon.

But while city residents and local industries benefited, the dam cut off a key water supply to farming areas to the east by diverting water from the giant Marte R. Gomez dam. The reservoir, which previously provided water to hundreds of thousands of residents in Tamaulipas, has since shrunk to a muddy puddle.

The water shortage has devastated the economy of the area, once a major producer of cotton and corn. Today, the farmers grow low-profit, drought-resistant sorghum, if they grow anything at all.

The situation is even more critical in areas affected by the water payments to the United States.

''Next year, I won't plant. It's just throwing money in the hole,'' said farmer Medrano Canto. He said that it would cost him more to rent the tractor to harvest his meager sorghum crop than what he could earn at the market.

''I'd like to be Pancho Villa, and march over there and open the dam,'' he said, referring to the Mexican revolutionary leader whose daring 1916 raid inside US territory is part of Mexican folklore. ''Just see if they can stop me.''

Then, as if reconsidering his bravado, he added, ''I guess God is the only one who can help us now.''