Avoiding a Water War

The politics of water threatens to wash away some of the current amity in US-Mexican relations. But with diligent effort, the two neighbors can start forging a more cooperative, less contentious future.

The immediate need is for Mexico to at least begin paying back a huge water debt it owes the US. A 1944 treaty governs distribution of Rio Grande and Colorado River flows. But in the drought-plagued years since 1992, Mexico has regularly reneged on supplying its agreed-to amounts from Rio Grande tributaries.

Intense talks between Mexican and US officials have settled on an initial payment by Mexico of 90,000 acre-feet – out of a total debt of 1.5 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to a depth of 12 inches.)

So far, so good. That should give parched South Texas farmers some hope they'll be able to grow their crops this year. Critics, though, say the Mexican commitment is far short of what's needed.

When that water flows, however, criticism north of the border should ease somewhat. But the tensions are just as sharp to the south. Every gallon released to the US brings a flood of criticism to Mexican President Vicente Fox. The deal includes, in fact, assurances to Mexico that if the drought persists and its reservoirs are low by late September, the US will transfer some water back.

In this situation, everyone needs to take a step back from emotion and finger-pointing. The facts are stark: The current drought has afflicted people on both sides of the border. The border region itself has ballooned in population and development, spurred by NAFTA commerce. The 1944 treaty, formed when only 1.4 million people lived in the US and Mexican counties along the 2,000 mile border (versus 12 million now), urgently needs to be rethought.

The new Rio Grande agreement should help move this process forward. It includes the positive step of using the North American Development Bank, set up by NAFTA, as well as Mexican and US public funds to pay for badly needed water infrastructure improvements in Mexico.

Some on the US side would prefer to see this package, totaling $210 million, withheld until Mexico's water debt is reduced. But the need for better water conservation is immediate, and it's in the best interests of the US, the richer neighbor, to substantially underwrite such efforts. Farmers need to learn about new irrigation techniques and less thirsty crops.

Mexico and the US have an opportunity to set a example for dealing with an issue, allocation of water, that besets many of the world's arid regions.

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