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Mexican Town's Fishing Oasis Parched by Politics


DON MARTIN, Mexico — It was a surreal creation. For three generations, a fisherman's oasis thrived in the Chihuahuan desert here, preserved only by some switches in a control room atop a 290-foot-tall dam.

The dam went up in 1930 to pool the Rio Salado's water for new cotton fields and two nearby towns. But the reservoir also filled up with trout, bream, bass, catfish and carp, giving rise to a village of 80 fishing families, a marina and six restaurants for visiting anglers.

Then, last year, the dam's federal custodian flipped the switches, sending billions of gallons of water rushing toward the Rio Grande to ease a deficit in Mexico's booming border cities and South Texas' parched farms. Infuriated, the villagers rallied behind Adrian Guajardo and seized the control room. They stemmed the flow for 72 days but ultimately lost the battle.

Today, the village's concrete boat ramp ends abruptly on a rocky, cactus-studded plain several hundred yards short of the receding waterline. Four-fifths of a man-made lake that once covered 27 square miles is gone, along with a livelihood the fishermen took for granted.

As the Rio Grande basin endures its worst drought in nearly half a century, perhaps no community has fought so hard for its water or lost so much so suddenly as Don Martin. Its decline is a lesson about the limits to survival in the world's arid regions, where rising populations fight over a shrinking source of life.

The village's struggle is also a sign of rising local militancy over water in northern Mexico.

Mexico's government, committed under President Vicente Fox to democracy and openness, is facing challenges to its centuries-old habit of making water policy by decree. Protests over water transfers have erupted in other Mexican cities and rural communities during the last year, drawing Congress and the courts into disputes.

The protests have complicated relations with the United States by making it harder for Mexico to comply with a 1944 treaty obligation to share the flows of its Rio Grande tributaries with its northern neighbor. Mexico is 450 billion gallons behind on deliveries.

Don Martin--68 miles west of Laredo, Texas, in Mexico's Coahuila state--is devoutly Roman Catholic. Many here viewed the reservoir as a gift from God and trusted the natural cycle of evaporation and rain to keep it productive.

"We survived before, when it was God who took our water.... He always evened things up by sending us rain," said Guajardo, 30, a fisherman's son who owns a restaurant here. "This time the water was taken by the will of man, and now people fear that God is angry and will not hear our prayers."

In recent conversations at their fishing co-op, other villagers said their lost battle has driven home a painful truth: The water was never really theirs. In fact, water in Mexico is controlled by the federal government. With no plan for managing the country's many reservoirs, it moves water around haphazardly, depending on need and political influence.

While Texas farmers collect U.S. crop insurance to offset losses, drought-stricken Mexicans collect promises from their government--but little relief. As their settlements dry up, they leave like nomads in search of water.

"Our village is disappearing little by little," said Pedro Tijerina, a 50-year-old fisherman, speaking over the sound of wind chimes on his back patio. He estimates that 35 young men, one-tenth of Don Martin's population, have migrated to border cities or the United States since their deep blue-green water flowed away.

"Tell President Bush that if he takes any more of our water, we'll see him next year in Texas," added Tijerina's wife, Maria Jesus Ledezma.

Each evening, Don Martin's remaining fishermen leave modest concrete-block homes and walk over what used to be the rocky lakebed to little boats moored in the shallow, silt-laden water. They row or push out on foot for more than a mile before the reservoir gets deep enough to lay their nets. Even then it is rarely 10 feet to the bottom.

They venture out again in the morning to haul the nets in. Few bother to start their engines, figuring that the meager catches awaiting them won't bring enough money to pay for the fuel.

On a typical day recently, Tijerina brought home two carp, 2 pounds each. His wife filleted and froze them. It used to take the couple a week to fill their big freezer with fish that fetched about $200 from visiting wholesale buyers. Now it takes more than a month.

Some villagers can no longer afford to keep their freezers plugged in. They eat their catch instead of selling it.

Community life is under strain. Six of the 30 players on Don Martin's youth baseball team, the Colts, have quit because their tennis shoes wore out and their parents couldn't buy new ones.

The restaurants have lost their best clients, the sports fishermen who once drove here from Monterrey, Saltillo and Nuevo Laredo.

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