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Mexico says it can’t meet water debt

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) — Mexican officials are politely telling South Texas farmers and irrigation managers that drought conditions will make it impossible for the country to meet its September water debt obligation.

The news is devastating to South Texas farmers who say they are growing increasingly angry at both Mexico, which they accuse of hogging water, and Washington, which they say isn’t doing enough.

On July 31, Mexico missed a target date to release 600,000 acre feet of water from the Rio Grande. Farmers here grumbled then about lost summer crops and gave up on portions of their citrus groves, then crossed their fingers hoping Mexico would meet its final deadline in September. August has continued dry, and South Texas crops are now dependent upon that water.

But in meetings held Tuesday and Wednesday at nearby Mexican consulates, farmers and water rights holders were read a statement from the Mexican government saying that the water just isn’t there to release and that a task force is being formed to study the problem.

‘‘Mexico has reneged on that commitment,’’ said Gordon Hill, a water rights holder whose business is selling water to some 200 farmers. ‘‘The local farmers went out and planted their plants. ... I’m out of water in 30 days.

‘‘There’s nothing we can do about it. We feel that we’re being sacrificed for NAFTA and trucking and immigration — all these things that Mexico wants — and they’re withholding our own water against us.’’

Hill sees the meetings as Mexico’s attempt to quiet the farmers before next week, when Presidents George Bush and Vincente Fox meet in Washington to discuss border issues including Mexican trucks and immigration. Some, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, say Mexico will use the water as a bargaining chip against stricter safety requirements on trucks.

Since 1944, the U.S. and Mexico have shared the water of the river that marks much of the nations’ international boundary, abiding by a treaty that runs on five-year cycles to accommodate the ebb and flow of water stores. The treaty is meant to guarantee that U.S. gets a water supply from the Rio Grande and that Mexico gets a water supply from the Colorado River

But for the 1992-1997 cycle, Mexico didn’t meet its commitment, and since then the nation has continued fallen behind, to its current 1.3 million acre feet deficit. Under an agreement signed in March as an addendum to the 1944 treaty, Mexico is to gradually pay back that water.

Between October 2000 and October 2001, Mexico was to release 600,000 acre feet of water. So far they have released about 350,000 acre feet.

An acre-foot is the quantity of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot, about 326,000 gallons

U.S. farmers say Mexico has interior reservoirs that have gotten enough rainfall to pay the debt, but that the water is instead going to Mexican farms.

‘‘Instead of allowing an adequate amount of water to reach the Rio Grande, Mexico (Chihuahua) instead used the majority of this water for interior irrigation, The drought was not the only factor that caused the deficit,’ Jo Jo White, head of Hidalgo and Cameron Counties Irrigation District No. 9, wrote in a letter to Mexican authorities on Wednesday.

Carlos Rubinstein, watermaster in charge of 1,600 water rights accounts belonging to municipalities as well as private landowners, agreed.

‘‘The amount of water that’s in storage is readily available and all of us have access to those numbers,’’ he said.

Mexican authorities did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Cesar Herrera, assistant director with the National Water Commission of Mexico, was quoted in the Mexican press as saying, ‘‘We would like to pay the debt and in fact we’ve done everything to try to pay it little by little, but Mexico just doesn’t have the water.’’

-- Martin Thompson (, August 30, 2001

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