Mexico and U.S. Agree on Water

Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- U.S. and Mexican negotiators Thursday concluded a vital water-supply agreement for 2003 that should ensure that farmers on both sides of the border can plant their spring crops confident of adequate irrigation throughout the growing season.

While thorny issues over each side's right to take actions affecting the water supply remain, the accord reached in Washington promises delivery to drought-stricken Texas farmers of 350,000 acre-feet of water, or 114 billion gallons, from Rio Grande tributaries in Mexico. An additional 50,000 acre-feet, or 16 billion gallons, will be released from Mexican reservoirs for consumption north of the border if weather conditions permit, said a Mexican official who asked not to be named.

A day after Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda tendered his resignation, his colleagues here were hesitant to discuss details of the sensitive accord. President Vicente Fox has not yet named Castaneda's replacement.

But water experts from both countries described the accord as a refreshing move in bilateral relations lately troubled by the protracted and perennial water dispute as well as Washington's failure to negotiate a migration pact -- the issue that prompted Castaneda to step down.

"This is an excellent first step that should at least defuse the immediate tensions" between the countries, said one U.S. water expert who monitors the issue from Texas.

Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a specialist on U.S.-Mexican relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, heralded the agreement as a sign of both sides' good intentions.

"Such a localized problem shouldn't be allowed to affect the kind of complex relations that exist between the two countries," he said. "What is important here isn't who won or who lost. What is important is that there is an agreement."

Noting that even with the weather-dependent extra payment Mexico's debt will still run to nearly 300 billion gallons -- enough to supply all of Los Angeles for a year and a half -- U.S. officials were more restrained in their reactions.

"We seem to come to this point every year. It's positive, but I don't want to overstate it," Dennis Linskey of the State Department's Mexico Desk said of the agreement.

Timely delivery of this year's minimum supply from Mexico, as set in a 1944 treaty, will primarily benefit farmers in Texas, who have suffered $175 million in crop losses since 1996. Usage and inadequate rainfall over the past decade have caused water levels along the lower Rio Grande to drop so drastically that the river runs dry before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

As rapid development on both sides of the Rio Grande transformed the region inhabited by 200,000 residents half a century ago into one that is home to more than 20 million today, water for both farming and drinking has become a scarce resource.

The river's most important tributaries are on the Mexican side, giving this country physical control of the water and the reservoirs that store it. But the situation is reversed for consumers in California's Imperial Valley and its extension south of the border, the Mexicali Valley. Those geographical imbalances prompted the two countries 59 years ago to draft the water treaty, which provides for water trade-offs from the U.S. to consumers in parched and populous Baja California and from Mexico to supply farmers in Texas.

But as the worst drought in half a century plagued Texas and the four Mexican states bordering the Rio Grande over the past decade, Mexico slowed water delivery to far below the treaty's annual mandates. It now owes the United States 346 billion gallons, nearly three years' worth of required deliveries. The debt was even worse last year -- 480 billion gallons -- before Mexico made some tardy and token payments.

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