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Special Report: Shrinking water reserves

Fighting over the last drops at Colorado Riverís end

By Mort Rosenblum AP Special Correspondent May 21, 2001

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- EL MAYOR, Mexico -- This Cucapa Indian village in the Colorado Delta grew up by a great waterway, rich with fish, farms and forests. Now, flyblown and forgotten, it has learned the hard way about thirst.

"Our river is gone," chief Onesimo Gonzales explained. "No more fishing. Trees are dead. No one plants. The wells are dry."

The 45 remaining families coax murky water for washing from a distant borehole, but for drinking or cooking they wait for trucks that sell clean water at seven pesos (65 cents) for a five-gallon jug.

At that rate, they would pay $13 million for the same amount of Colorado River water that developers of Shadow Lake near Indio bought for $3,400 for their $70 million water-ski estate.

Men catch the odd catfish or bass to supplement wages as laborers when work can be found. But nothing much grows in their parched, salty fields. Mostly, the village languishes.

The plight of El Mayor typifies what is happening around the world as politics and engineering shape access to dwindling water sources. Commonly, water flows uphill toward money.

Each year, Mexico gets only 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water, one-tenth of what is drawn off above the border. Mexican farmers use it all, leaving only a trickle in the riverbed.

To increase the Coloradoís flow toward the Gulf of California, Mexicoís National Water Commission diverted the tributary Hardy River, which runs by El Mayor.

The owners of two tourist camps persuaded engineers to design a levee that leaves them a small lake. But the village a few miles downstream was cut off, leaving only a pesticide-laced sludge at the end of the Hardy.

"I guess they just didnít think about El Mayor," said Jose Campoy, the Ministry of Environment biologist who oversees the delta and upper Gulf of California.

Possibility of renewal

Campoy, along with scientists and activists on both sides of the border, is fighting to save the rest of the delta from the fate of El Mayor. There is new hope, he says, but it could go either way.

Repeated years of high Colorado flow have brought excess water below the Morelos Dam under a complex sharing agreement. This has wet the roots of old cottonwoods and willows that managed to hang on.

Also, salty runoff from Wellton-Mohawk area farms in Arizona is channeled to the Cienega de Santa Clara, which by fortunate accident recharges a cattail wetlands lake that shelters dozens of bird species.

If this small amount of extra water comes each year, the environmentalists say, much of the delta can find new life. Eventually, even El Mayor might revive.

But farmers want more water, too. At present, Mexican farm groups point out, they have twice as much arable land as Californiaís Imperial Valley but only the half the water.

"This is like Israel and Palestine fighting over the River Jordan," Campoy said. "It wonít get to be a violent conflict, but I am afraid there will be a bitter fight."

Edward Glenn, head of the Environmental Research Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz., calculates Mexico needs no more than 100,000 acre feet extra for the delta to survive -- under 1 percent of the Coloradoís average flow.

Without it, he says, the delta will be lost for good. Today, in spite of wet years in the 1990s, there are barely 20,000 acres of freshwater wetlands and 120,000 more of coastal marsh.

Water everywhere

When Onesimo Gonzales, the village chief, was born in 1934, Hoover Dam was just taking shape, and the Colorado was untamed. The delta then supported a marshland and silt-rich estuary covering 1.9 million acres.

In its wild days, the Colorado bustled with boat traffic. Before the railroad arrived, regular steamers took passengers from San Francisco around Baja California and up to Yuma, Ariz.

Parker Dam dealt the coup de grace. During the 1970s until 1981, as Lake Powell filled, no surplus water reached Mexico. Riverbeds dried to sand. Tides scoured away good land.

And now, after a compromise worked out with U.S. western states last year by then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Mexico is likely to get less excess water than in the past.

"We must save the Colorado Delta for the benefit of everyone," insists Campoy. "Itís not the same to have drains and canals. This is a river -- badly treated, but a river."

Each year, drains into the lower Colorado add 70,000 tons of fertilizers and 100,000 gallons of insecticides, Mexican authorities say. With lax controls, DDT still threatens humans and wildlife.

The Defenders of Wildlife and other U.S. environmental groups have sued the American government under the Endangered Species Act, charging that miserly releases of water are destroying habitats.

Diplomatic pressure is mounting. Mexican President Vicente Fox champions not only environmental protection but also agricultural production in the delta.

Today, in the baking heat, much of the Mexicali and San Luis valleys seem covered in permafrost, crusty white residue of a salty river on under-irrigated farmland. Thousands of acres are simply abandoned.

North of the border

Imperial Valley farmers have implanted underground "tiles" to leach away salt. Mexicans, who canít afford this technique are stuck with even saltier water left to them after irrigation use in the United States.

Now, more bad news.

The Imperial Valley Irrigation District has agreed to line its All American Canal along the border, saving 67,000 acre feet of water to sell to San Diego. Mexicans want that water to seep into their aquifer.

"If we gave them more water, the farmers would just take it," said Thomas Carr of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Other U.S. states make similar arguments.

Glenn dismisses that reasoning as an excuse not to share more water. He expects few voluntary gestures from Colorado Basin states, water districts, or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the river.

"The environmental argument doesnít carry much weight," he said. "Most of these guys wouldnít put a cup of water on a dying plant in Mexico."

In the delta itself, farmers are divided. Some say they want every drop for their parched fields. But others take a longer view.

"Sure Iíd like more water, but if it stayed in the river that would help us, too," said Miguel Fajardo, a delta farmer for 40 years. "It would raise the water table. Weíd be able to fish. We would have green again."

But Juan Butron, who began the project, is most often in his fields. He irrigates by waiting day and night for dry canals to suddenly gush. He quickly cuts trenches in the earthen banks. Then he shovels back the dirt.

Working his 14 acres dawn to dusk for seven months last year, he cleared a profit of $1,400.

"Yes, I have to say it hurts when we go to the other side and see how much water, how much wealth they have there," he said. "We only want what is fair, and I am afraid we will have to fight to get it."

Richard Brusca, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona, fears the gulf is already too wide between Mexican poverty and American affluence.

After 35 years of studying the region, he sees disaster looming. Saltcedars -- tamarisks from India -- push out native plants, suck up water and damage soil. Palmerís saltgrass, a valuable wild crop, is now rare. Ecosystems can be rescued, Brusca says, but Mexico alone canít afford the cost.

The U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty of 1944 covers not only the Colorado and Tijuana but also the Rio Grande, which complicates negotiations.

Mexico is committed to releasing 350,000 acre feet a year from six Rio Grande tributaries. Since 1992, because of development and scant rains, this supply has stopped, with severe impact on South Texas farming.

The White House announced an accord in March for Mexico to pay off its water debt beginning with 200 billion gallons this year. But the drought crippling Texas also affects Mexico, and there may be another delay.

Robert Glennon, a law professor who specializes in water, argues the time is perfect for a Bush administration initiative to revisit the water treaty and save the Colorado Delta.

"George Bush knows Mexico and water," he said. "Heís the former governor of a Western state. This could be the chance he needs to change his image as an anti-environment president."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 21, 2001

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