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U.S., Mexico Reach Deal to End Water Dispute

Resources: The Latin nation agrees to pay back a token amount in return for a pledge of replenishment if it doesn't rain by Oct. 26.

June 29, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Mexico agreed Friday to an immediate but token payment on its vast water debt to the United States, ending for now an unusually bitter quarrel over how to manage the Rio Grande Valley's worst drought in nearly half a century.

In return for a 29-billion-gallon payment to parched South Texas farms, the U.S. pledged to lend back all or part of that volume if rain fails to replenish by Oct. 26 the dwindling reserves of drinking water for Mexican border cities. The payment is 6% of the debt.

Mexico will get $45 million from the North American Development Bank and a U.S. promise to seek additional funding to overhaul Mexico's leak-prone water delivery systems, according to the deal hammered out in Washington.

The accord is to be made public today in both nations' capitals, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced some details Friday, and negotiators on both sides confirmed others.

The dispute over scarce water soured U.S.-Mexican relations throughout the spring and eclipsed all other bilateral issues until the neighbors began quiet negotiations three weeks ago. The accord marks a truce but leaves neither side fully satisfied and only begins to confront the causes of the Rio Grande Valley's water woes.

Perry called the agreement "one show of good faith" but added that Mexico "must now take the next step, which is to commit to a regular schedule" of further debt payments.

Decades of unchecked industrial and agricultural growth have swelled the valley's population from 200,000 to 20 million since World War II, straining water supplies. The decade-old drought has cost Texas an estimated $175 million in direct crop losses since 1996.

Mexico has suffered similar losses in its four states along the Rio Grande border, with farmers in Tamaulipas recording $40 million in drought damage over the last year. As tributaries and reservoirs shrink, people on both sides of the border fear that their fields and towns will dry up and die.

A 1944 treaty obliges Mexico and the U.S. to share the waters of the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers. Mexico is supposed to turn over 114 billion gallons a year where six Mexican tributaries--Conchos, Las Vacas, San Diego, San Rodrigo, Escondido and Salado--flow into the Rio Grande. The water is measured and stored at two shared reservoirs. During the current drought, Mexico has fallen 480 billion gallons in arrears--enough to supply the city of Los Angeles for more than two years.

Mexico has argued that it is not legally obliged to start paying the water debt before a new five-year treaty cycle begins in late September. If Texans want more water before then, Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez said this spring, "they should pray for rain."

But with planting underway in April, Perry demanded that Washington ignore a Mexican request for $100 million in water management assistance. Until the entire debt is paid, he said, such aid would "add insult to real economic injury" to Texas farmers.

Mexican border governors sniped back, some claiming their states' water to be "sovereign." Dozens of U.S. and Mexican farmers, vying for scarce water and facing ruin, used tractors to block international truck traffic on both sides of the Rio Grande. U.S. officials said satellite photos proved that Mexico was hoarding water; the Mexicans complained of being spied on.

President Bush has pressed for water repayment at meetings with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Mexican diplomats complained that water was distracting U.S. attention from their nation's priorities, including a proposal to legalize more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States.

Fox postponed a visit to Texas this week after farmers there vowed to confront him with protests, and he worked to calm nationalist passions at home.

"Today both governments and both countries understand that the problem is a lack of water, that it hasn't rained enough in 10 years and that nobody is hiding water," Fox told reporters Monday. "This issue can be overcome."

Under Friday's accord, Mexico will transfer to the United States ownership rights to 29 billion gallons that are now part of Mexico's share in their jointly held reservoirs--Amistad and Falcon--along the Rio Grande. The quantity is a compromise between the 32 billion gallons demanded by Texas and the 11 billion gallons first offered by Mexico on June 6.

Perry said the water will flow to Texas within days--as soon as the U.S. and Mexican representatives to the International Boundary and Water Commission, which administers the two reservoirs and the 1944 treaty, sign a paper adjusting the two national accounts.

The transfer would reduce Mexico's share of the 346 billion gallons of water in the two reservoirs to 51 billion gallons. That level is so low, Mexican officials warn, that 1.5 million Mexicans in a string of river cities from Piedras Negras to Matamoros might run out of drinking water if no rain falls by February.

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