U.S. Water News Online
DELICIAS, Chihuahua -- Tucked among parched canyons in the
shadow of the Tarahumara mountains, a series of desert reservoirs
holds a lifeline for two nations.
In Mexico, water from the Rio Conchos and the rivers that feed it
transform arid land into verdant fields of alfalfa, melons and chile
peppers. Some 600 miles away in Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley, the
same water is coveted as the primary source for irrigation of 40
crops, including thousands of acres of prized citrus and sugar cane.
The Rio Grande, a ribbon of life amid sparse expanses of Texas and
northern Mexico, connects the two fertile growing regions. It is
barely a trickle when it flows south of El Paso toward Big Bend
National Park. But at the confluence of the Rio Conchos, near the
Texas border town of Presidio, the Rio Grande grows fivefold -- or at
least it used to.
A decade ago, when the flow of the Rio Conchos began to slow, it
didn't take long for Texas farmers to notice. They accused Mexico of
stealing water they said was rightfully theirs under provisions of a
Since then, Mexico has racked up a water debt in the hundreds of
billions of gallons, and a dispute that started between a few
thousand farmers in far-flung corners of each country has reached the
highest levels of government in Washington and Mexico City.
The quarrel over rights to a scarce resource in the fast-growing
border region has become an early test of Mexican diplomacy for the
"This is probably one of the most difficult issues we have in our
relationship right now, and it's difficult because we have no easy
apparent solution," said Dennis Linskey, the U.S. State Department's
coordinator for U.S.-Mexico border affairs.
The 1944 treaty dictates that Mexico provide the United States
one-third of all water that flows from six Rio Grande tributaries, or
a minimum of 350,000 acre-feet per year. In return, the United States
must deliver to Mexico at least 1.5 million acre feet of water per
year from the Colorado River, which flows south of the border from
The United States has kept up its end of the treaty every year
since 1950. Mexico, however, has accumulated a deficit of 1.4 million
Mexico blames the shortfall on drought -- the United States says
Chihuahua farmers have kept large reserves all to themselves.
"The problem is, they've turned the desert into an oasis with our
water," said Wayne Halbert, irrigation district manager in Harlingen,
who toured the agricultural region of Chihuahua last year.
South Texas farmers, suffering from a drought of their own, are
clamoring for the water. Without it, they say, the Valley's
agricultural economy could blow away with the spring crops that are
now struggling to take hold in the dry soil.
The water shortage has cost the four-county Rio Grande Valley
region nearly $1 billion in crop losses and related economic impact
over the last decade, according to an analysis by John Robinson, an
economist at Texas A & M Agricultural Extension Service in
Weslaco. Farmers are converting thousands of acres to dry land crops
such as grain sorghum, which brings small returns.
"We need deliveries of water by June of this year," said Carlos
Ramirez, appointed by Bush as U.S. commissioner of the International
Boundary and Water Commission, a binational agency that oversees
water treaties between the two countries. "We understand their
reservoirs are not at 100 percent capacity. However, we also
understand that Mexico has enough water to meet its own needs and pay
Mexican water officials say the drought has left them without
enough water for their own needs, much less those of U.S. farmers.
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