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Basta ya with finger pointing!
It’s time to put aside recriminations and come up with productive, long-term solutions to border water challenges.
by Jonathan Treat | March 20, 2002

U.S.-Mexico water relations are on the agenda for this week’s meeting
between Mexican President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush.
But doubts linger as to whether the two countries will be able to agree
on how to address Mexico’s water debt to the United States–and whether
or not any agreement will include long-term solutions, as opposed to short-term
Currently, Mexico owes the United States over 1 million acre-feet of
water according to the terms of binational treaties governing use of shared
water resources by the two countries.
A meeting between Bush and Fox around this time last year produced an
agreement (International Boundary and Water Commission Minute 307) aimed
at partially defusing the binational standoff over water supplies. Under
that deal, Mexico agreed to pay 600,000 acre-feet of water to the United
States by July 31, 2001.
While Mexico released just over half of that water soon after the agreement,
it then suspended payments after Mexican farmers filed a series of lawsuits
in federal court to prevent additional releases. (Even without the lawsuit,
the figure of 600 AF had been based on conservative rainfall predictions
which were not met, and Mexico would likely have not been able to release
the water.)
Those injunctions were lifted in mid-February this year, and Mexico released
an additional 92,000 acre-feet of water. That amount still only represents
about 7% of Mexico’s total 1.4-million acre-foot water debt, however.
With agricultural producers and state officials in Texas crying foul,
Mexico insisted it simply didn’t have enough water to make additional
payments due to prolonged drought.
Binational discussions on the issue bogged down. U.S. Secretary of State
Colin Powell and Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations Jorge Casteñeda
both acknowledged discussing Mexico’s water debt in meetings held
in Washington this January, but neither was willing to elaborate on the
substance of those discussions.
However, a few days after releasing the 92,000 acre-feet of water, Mexico
announced plans for 11 projects to modernize irrigation infrastructure
and a series of new water recycling programs as a way to meet its water
debts and address its own domestic needs.
Despite that promising development, recent binational meetings held in
El Paso, Texas, in preparation for this week’s presidential meeting have
failed to produce any concrete proposals for additional measures, the
Austin American-Statesman reported on March 17. [ 1]
And even if the two countries manage to agree on some sort of proposal
for addressing the situation, the experience of Minute 307 suggests that’s
no guarantee that the problem will go away. Indeed, this seems particularly
evident given that water reservoirs in the state of Chihuahua are at only
about 28% of capacity.
Experts close to the issue say that regardless of any stopgap measures
the two countries work out this week or in the weeks to come, lasting
solutions will only come through binational cooperation to develop a coordinated
water policy for the entire binational Rio Grande basin.
“The important issue is how the countries can cooperate, both on
some short-term resolution that gives lower river farmers on both sides
more certainty regarding water deliveries in the next year and also on
how to have a system of drought management, reservoir management, conservation
and other measures that ensure this type of crisis does not recur,”
says Mary Kelly of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, an Austin, Texas-based
environmental think tank. “And these measures are going to have to
focus on agricultural conservation on both sides of the border, since
agriculture accounts for 85 to 90% of the total surface water use.”
In fact, the two governments acknowledged the need for some serious binational
planning and management activities under Minute 307.
But rather than framing the situation as a shared problem–or looking
at the role water-intensive agriculture plays on both sides of the border–most
public debates on the issue seem to consist mainly of finger pointing
and pressure tactics.
Farmers and officials in Texas, for example, charge that Mexico has hoarded
water from Chihuahua’s Conchos Basin for its own use, creating “lush
and green conditions” in Chihuahua while Texas’ South Valley dries
But characterizing conditions in Chihuahua as lush and green is inaccurate,
say some experts. “While there are chile, nogal and alfalfa crops
being irrigated in Chihuahua, in Delicias–the largest irrigation district
in the Conchos Basin–some of that irrigation has been provided by groundwater,
not water stored in reservoirs,” observes Kelly. “More than
300 wells have been drilled in the area. And in the Delicias district,
planting has actually been cut back dramatically. And while there probably
was over-irrigation in the 1996/1997 season, planting in the Delicias
district has dropped dramatically from a high of 140,000 hectares in the
late 1980s to roughly 35,000 hectares in 2001, according to data from
Mexico’s National Water Commission.”
Additionally, blame for the situation can’t be laid wholesale at Mexico’s
feet. Weather conditions on the U.S. side have also played a part. The
South Texas Valley had only 12.5 inches of rain last year–less than half
its normal average annual rainfall. Indeed, the past two years in Brownsville,
Texas, have been the ninth and 10th driest years since 1871, according
to the National Weather Service. Last year in Brownsville, rainfall was
roughly 10 inches below the yearly average of 26.93 inches. Unfortunately,
no immediate relief is in sight; upstream snowpack on the U.S. side that
feeds into the Rio Grande was reportedly only 44% of normal in February.

At the same time, the drought that south Texas farmers are suffering
through hasn’t been limited to the U.S. side of the border. It has
had impacted northern Mexico as well; drought emergencies have been regularly
declared in northern Mexican for several years running.
The finger pointing and stopgap measures could go on for years–until
water supplies drop off even more and it’s too late for problem solving.
Or border water stakeholders and U.S. and Mexican officials can sit down
at the table, think outside the box, and try to come up with productive,
lasting solutions.
Jonathan Treat writes regularly for the Americas Program.
[1] Robert W. Gee and Susan Ferriss, “U.S., Mexico
share an urgent thirst,” Austin American-Statesman , March
17, 2002.

Boundary and Water Commission | U.S. Section
Texas Center for
Policy Studies
“The Border’s
Troubled Waters” | borderlines (vol. 9, no. 10) November 2001

Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Jonathan Treat, “Basta ya with Finger Pointing,” Americas Program
Commentary (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, March 19,
Web location: