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MARY KELLY ON MEXICO’S WATER DEFICIT by Sandra Spicher “He [Szekely] told us that Tamaulipas was having a hard time and the farmers were suing the Mexican government not to release the water,” said Jesus Garcia. “But we aren’t asking for anything that isn’t ours.” Border representatives like U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz are currently considering whether to try to impose sanctions against Mexico for its failure to release the water. In a recent press release, Ortiz said he would suggest that Mexico pay higher tariffs, on imports to compensate for profits realized from the use of U.S. water. Gordon Hill, manager of the Bayview Irrigation District, said that an acre-foot of water would be worth $650 to a farmer in the Valley, and that farmers there had already lost $400 million last year. White and other Valley water stakeholders say that they have lost hope that the IBWC can resolve the treaty conflicts. “It’s reached the point that it’s evident that this will have to be solved between Fox and Bush,” said White. Experts are already projecting that border populations will double in the next 40 years, and that serious long-term negotiations and planning will have to be undertaken to conserve and manage the dwindling Rio Grande water supply. Otherwise, the water issue could seriously damage relations between the United States and Mexico, which Fox and Bush have tried to improve. “The future does not look promising,” said Ismael Aguilar, who recently co-wrote a report on the Rio Grande Basin for the Houston-based Mitchell Center for Sustainable Development. “There is still such a major lack of understanding about water. Even the high-level officials who drafted the 1944 water treaty didn’t understand it fully.” “For a long time we were extremely lucky,” Aguilar said. “But we can’t continue to rely on tropical storms to replace long-term water management strategies.” The good news is that the enduring drought has many officials on both sides of the border thinking seriously In 1944 the U.S. and Mexico signed a treaty divvying up water along their shared border, including the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Much of the Rio Grande’s flow, especially below Big Bend comes from key tributaries on the Mexican side. The treaty obligates Mexico to maintain a minimum level of flow from those tributaries into the Rio Grande, which provides water for use by Texas farmers and municipalities. Due to extreme drought since 1992 in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and other factors, Mexico has fallen behind on its share. Texas farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, suffering from a drought of their own, want Mexico to pay up. But how? On a gray, rainy morning in Austin, T.O. spoke with Mary Kelly, director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, about the politics of water. Texas Observer: At the recent U.S.-Mexico Border Summit, you served on a panel called “Border Water and Environmental Challenges and Opportunities.” What were some of those challenges and opportunities? Mary Kelly: I spoke primarily about water management issues. One of the higher profile issues now is the 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty and the [water] deficit that Mexico is running. It’s important to point out that Mexico is not violating the treaty. Mexico can run a deficit when there is an extraordinary drought. Mexico has agreed to pay back that water when it can and is making good-faith efforts to do that. The level of rhetoric that’s coming out of the state, and the farmers in particular, accusing Mexico of deliberately violating the treaty, withholding water to hurt Texas farmers, is not helpful. We’re going to have to cooperate on water issues for a long time. TO: How is water allottedwho gets priorityon both sides of the border? Cities, industry, agriculture? MK: The 1944 treaty gives higher priority to municipal use, as does Texas law. That’s pretty standard. The countries agreed to divide equally the waters in the main stem of the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman, and the U.S. has rights to one third of the water from various Mexican tributaries that reach the Rio Grande, with the requirement that Mexico provide a minimum of 350,000 acre-feet a year over a five-year cycle. Mexico wasn’t able to provide that minimum over the last fiveyear cycle, which ended in 1997, and that’s why it has a deficit of about a million acre-feet. It’s also behind somewhat in this current cycle. One of the reasons we’re concerned that the rhetoric not escalate too much is that, for around forty years, almost since the treaty was signed, Mexico provided four to five times the minimum flow. The river’s relatively healthier with that kind of flow. Mexico is not required to ever provide more than the minimum, but it has been. It gets no credit for that under the way the treaty accounting works. There’s a concern from the public interest that the rhetoric doesn’t escalate such that Mexico says, “Fine, we’re never going to provide more than our minimum:’ That would cause a permanent drought situation for the shared portion of the Rio Grande. That’s bad for the river, it’s bad for the Valley, and bad for Tamaulipas [the Mexican border state across from the Lower Rio Grande River Valley]. TO: What about conservation in cities and industry? MK: Industrial water use is actually, proportionately, quite small. Irrigated agriculture still accounts for 80, 85 percent of the water use in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. [The Valley] has, in my mind, done the best job in the entire state in incorporating conservation. Their plan for meeting future water needs is essentially conservation in the agricultural sector, because a lot of that irrigation is inefficient. It’s going to require money to help farmers conserve water, but agricultural conservation and really aggressive measures in municipal conservation are primarily how they’re going to meet their future water needs. They’re also looking at desalination, which is expensive, and then Brownsville has a proposal to construct something called a weir, which is a dam, which is just a silly proposal. But it’s B THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/23/01