Water Dispute Heightens Tensions Between U.S., Mexico

from Arizona Public Media

Mexico and the United States are supposed to share water according to a 70-year-old treaty that aims to protect each nation's needs. But prolonged drought is testing that relationship. Mexico is behind by 38 percent on its deliveries.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we'll report next from the U.S.-Mexico border. A 70-year-old treaty pledges both countries to keep the Rio Grande flowing, but Mexico has fallen behind on its obligations, endangering agriculture in the river valley. From member station KJZZ, Monica Ortiz Uribe reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)

MONICA ORTIZ-URIBE, BYLINE: At the end of a long hot work day, farm laborers heave heavy sacks of red jalapenos onto a metal scale. A supervisor calls out their weight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)

ORTIZ-URIBE: These peppers will be smoked into chipotle, a signature product of this area. We're near the city of Delicias in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. These dehydrated chiles - smoldered till they're brown and wrinkled - look like a cruel caricature of the soil.

HOMERO CHAVEZ: We've had a water shortage for the last two years.

ORTIZ-URIBE: Homero Chavez is a farmer just outside Delicias. Drought knows no borders. Farmland in Northern Mexico is just as parched as parts of the Western United States. Farmers here only got one-third of the water they needed this year.

CHAVEZ: If you don't have no water, it will reflect on your prices, drastically sometimes. And your profits will go down, of course.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: To survive, Chavez had to buy water rights from other farmers who couldn't afford to plant this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN)

URIBE: The sky finally opened up in late July and delivered a much needed soaking. The excess rain caused this small local dam to overflow, sending a new gush of water into Chihuahua's Rio Conches. This Mexican river eventually flows downstream to the Texas border where it meets with the Rio Grande. That's how Mexico delivers most of its water to the United States, under a treaty signed by both countries in 1944. Currently, Mexico is behind by 38 percent.

SALLY SPENER: Mexico has an obligation to deliver a minimum annual average of 350,000 acre feet in cycles of five years.

URIBE: Sally Spener is with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency that oversees bi-national water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico. Under the same treaty, the U.S. delivers Colorado River water to the Mexican States of Sonora and Baja California.

SPENER: We basically set aside water in the United States reservoirs that will be released and delivered to Mexico. We do not believe that the Mexican system is managed in a similar fashion.

URIBE: In fact, it's not. Jesus Luevano works for the federal agency that represents Mexico under the bi-national water treaties. He confirmed that irrigation districts in Mexico do not set aside water to meet their yearly obligation.

JESUS LUEVANO: Because usually, with the rains, Mexico in the past we were be able to comply with Mexico's obligations under the treaty.

URIBE: But since the drought hit in 2011, Mexico could no longer rely on the weather. And their low water deliveries have struck a heavy blow to both sides of the Rio Grande Valley.

JOJO WHITE: I mean we're down to the bare bottoms of the bucket.

URIBE: JoJo White heads the Mercedes Irrigation District in South Texas. He drives his pickup past fallow fields checkered with wild sunflowers.

WHITE: Half of the farmland in the district was not planted because there wasn't any water. That has never happened.

URIBE: Another year with scarce water could wipe out the farming industry here. A study by Texas A&M University estimates the economic loss would be $400 million and some 5,000 jobs. Cities would also be in trouble since they depend on irrigation canals to deliver their water supply.

In an effort to turn things around, Mexican water officials are finalizing a new set of rules that would require Mexican irrigation districts to set aside water for the Rio Grande River. These new rules could go into effect as early as October. But both countries are still stretched thin for water, so the challenge of finding better ways to share and conserve remains.

For NPR news, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Hey, that story came to us from Fronteras, a Public Radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border and changing demographics.

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