News Stories

Water War With Mexico

Julie Watson writes in AP Latin America that this year, in fields in the drought-stricken Mexican state of Chihuahua, Mexican farmers are threatening a bitter fight for Rio Grande water that could affect relations between the United States and Mexico.

U.S. officials say that under a 1944 treaty, Mexico owes Texas farmers 1.5 million acre-feet of water. Each acre-foot is enough to cover one acre of land with one foot of water, an amount equivalent to 326,000 gallons. The treaty gives Mexico a larger quantity of water, but via the Colorado River far to the west.

Mexico says that because of drought, it doesn't have the water to pay its growing debt. South Texas farmers and even Mexican farmers in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas accuse Chihuahua growers of ignoring the water treaty.

Texas farmers met with U.S. legislators in Brownsville, Texas to show them their dying fields and urge Congress to stall legislation sought by Mexico, such as agreements on immigration, until the water war is resolved.

Outside the city of Delicias in Chihuahua, green fields contrast with the stark, brown mountains. Waist-high wheat waves in the breeze and alfalfa grows in fields near lush pecan orchards. The farms are fed by metal tubes carrying water from canals.

Delicias is near the Rio Conchos, the main tributary feeding the Rio Grande. A study by Texas A & M University reported that Chihuahua farms have expanded even as Mexico hasn?t kept up with its water payments. Texas farmers say the water shortage has cost them an estimated $1 billion so far.

A study found Chihuahua's production of thirsty crops like corn and alfalfa jumped more than 60 percent between the drought years of 1995 and 1999. "We were really shocked," says Parr Rosson, who headed the study. He says Chihuahua's water use rose to 2.3 million acre feet from 1.2 million between 1980 and 1997, though it dropped to 1.6 million in 1999. Since the study ended, corn acreage increased by another 25 percent and that of alfalfa by 11 percent.

A Chihuahua state agriculture official, Jesus Dominguez, disputes the claims, saying, "That's false. They have to show proof." He says a formal response has to come from Mexico's foreign relations department in Mexico city.

Earlier this week, the department issued a statement by legal adviser Alberto Szekely insisting that Mexico was trying to meet its obligations. "We would be complying if we have water, if there had not been an extraordinary drought," he says. "It cannot be said that we are not complying, because it is materially impossible at the moment to comply with the treaty." But he admitted that Mexico needed "a much wiser, very much more intelligent use" of water than in the past.

Chihuahua growers say falling prices for drought-resistant crops left them no choice but to turn to more thirsty crops. "There was no way out other than by planting alfalfa," local farmer Eduardo Melendez says.

Farmers on the U.S. side of the border say they are hurting too. Their reservoirs are at less than 25 percent capacity. "The water levels have dropped so low that cars and bodies started appearing," says agricultural engineer Humberto Estrada. "They found the body of a mayor who was missing. All kinds of things at the bottom of the dam have started appearing over the past few years."

Many Mexican farmers have drilled wells to tap groundwater to support the thirstier, high-value crops. Chihuahua has huge lakes hundreds of feet underground. However, those wells could be lowering the levels of the Rio Conchos, which flows over the underground lakes, according to Rosson. "It's a slow process, but pumping and pumping over time could be causing less flow down to the Rio Grande," he says.

Rosson agrees that Mexico doesn't have enough water, but says Texas would like to see some gestures of good faith, such as investment in more efficient irrigation systems. Most growers continue to use the least-expensive method of irrigation, which is flooding their fields, which wastes large amounts of water in evaporation.

"Why should they have the water and not us, when they're using water that's illegal? That water belongs to somebody else, not them," says Jo Jo White, irrigation manager in Mercedes, Texas. "We've suffered a hardship for seven years because of this illegal act. ... Now it's time to teach them a hard and bitter lesson."

Global warming creates weather extremes, meaning floods in some places and droughts in others. Water wars are the inevitable results of this. To learn more about it, read ?The Coming Global Superstorm? by Art Bell & Whitley Strieber, now only $9.95 for a hardcover signed by Whitley, click here.

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