US and Mexico Tackle Air Pollution, but Set Water Issues Aside

The United States and Mexico are forging ahead with a program to reduce cross-border air pollution. But while the efforts may yield cleaner skies, solving another regional environmental problem - water - may prove more difficult.

The two countries took a significant step toward cleaning up the skies in the border cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez , Mexico last week when US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his Mexican counterpart, Foreign Affairs Secretary Angel Gurria, signed a pact.

The pact creates a binational committee to advise both countries on measures to improve air quality in the rapidly growing two-city area, where 2.5 million residents breathe the most polluted air along the 1,900-mile border.

Under the agreement, 10 representatives from each country will join a committee that will oversee air-quality projects on both sides of the border. Eventually, industrial plants in El Paso could earn credits under the federal Clean Air Act for investing in pollution-reduction projects in Ciudad Juarez.

Environmentalists and governmental officials are praising the agreement as a milestone in US-Mexico relations. But Jorge Aguirre of the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC) in Ciudad Juarez, warns: "The water problem is much more extensive than the air problem."

Indeed, while the agreement may mean less air pollution travels from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, the Mexican city still doesn't have any waste-water-treatment facilities, a situation that continues to cause odor and vermin problems in El Paso. Some of the water difficulties on the border are slowly being addressed by the BECC and the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank (NADBank).

Created by the side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the two agencies are designed to work together to provide funding for pollution-control and water-treatment facilities. So far, the BECC has certified seven water treatment plants, but none has begun construction, even though the NADBank has $225 million in cash supplied by the US and Mexican governments.

"We'd rather be criticized for not lending than for doing a bad loan," says Annie Alvarado, a NADBank spokeswoman, who adds that the first project, a waste-water treatment plant in Brawley, Calif., should be ready to start construction sometime this fall.

While the BECC has focused primarily on water quality issues, the long-term growth of the border region may depend more on water quantity. Ciudad Juarez, which relies on groundwater, could run out of water within 15 years.

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