Water fights flare in border region

Water fights flare in border region

“We are going to defend our water with bullets,” declared farmers in Chihuahua’s El Sauz-Encinillas Valley.  Small growers in the agricultural region located near the state capital of Chihuahua City are demanding that state and federal authorities put a brake on the over-extraction of groundwater.

In the past few years, new farming operations, especially large pecan orchards, have been established in a zone where 100-260 acre farms of oats, alfalfa, corn and wheat traditionally predominated.  But local farmers, who possess groundwater rights and count on wells typically drilled up to 450 feet, allege that deep-pocketed newcomers, accompanied by armed guards, have sunk more than 100 illegal wells to depths as much as 900 feet.

Like New Mexico to the north, a pecan export boom came to Chihuahua in recent times. The northern Mexican state is now in the club of top world exporters of water-hungry pecans, which find a profitable market in Asia.

Although at least 31 legal complaints related to wells are pending in the San Agustin area alone, producers charge they have received no response to their grievances.

“They are going to screw the producers, the families who have always lived in this region,” grower Arturo Arguelles fumed.  Farmers like Arguelles also worry that deep drilling will not only dry up an aquifer, but also contaminate water with arsenic, uranium and fluoride, all of which have already been detected by state officials.

“We aren’t rejecting water for the city of Chihuahua or pecan farming,” added Enrique Ochoa Godoy of the El Sauz Groundwater Administration Committee.  “We demand the sustainability of the El Sauz- Encinillas aquifer."

The El Sauz-Encinillas Valley conflict is just one of many breaking out in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. as a deepening drought and a changing climate smother a vast, arid land mass. Similar to the scramble for energy resources worldwide, the demand for water is increasingly met by carving deep into the earth or altering the landscape above.

Reminiscent of a cross-border battle a dozen years ago, farmers in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley are threatening blockades of international border crossings and other protests if the state of Chihuahua builds more dams and dikes in the Rio Conchos watershed that feeds into the Rio Grande.  Talk is even in the air of boycotting companies like Dole and Green Giant that have Mexican farming operations and compete with Texas growers.

Word of the farmers’ discontent was relayed at a press conference last week in the Texas border town of Weslaco, where U.S. Representative Filemon Vela Jr. (D-Brownsville) charged that Mexico is currently violating the terms of a 1944 treaty with the U.S. that obligates it to deliver 350,000 acre-feet of water every year to the lower portion of the Rio Grande. According to the Texas Congressman, Mexico currently owes 400,000 acre-feet of water to the Rio Grande, the lifeblood of a billion dollar per year agriculture business in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Frank “Jo Jo” White, a valley district irrigation manager, said an uncertain water supply prompted farmers to leave half their land fallow so far this year.  Jim Darling, president of the Rio Grande Regional Water Authority, contended that locals were “at the mercy of a foreign country for our water.” Darling added, “It’s important we get Washington’s attention on this because almost two million people rely on (Rio Grande water) for water supply.”

Congressman Vela asserted that the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC),  the federal  agency which oversees implementation of the 1944 treaty, has not been effective in forcing Mexico to live up to its end of the Rio Grande river sharing bargain.

Vowing to sponsor legislation that will force the U.S. Department of State to provide Capitol Hill lawmakers with an annual report on Mexico’s compliance with the 1944 treaty, the border Democrat warned that Congress could revisit Minute 319, the widely-acclaimed  agreement reached last year between Mexico and the U.S. over emergency allocations and conservation of Colorado River water.

Vela said it might be time to reconsider the 1944 treaty itself.

On the other side of the river, Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte made like-minded comments last month.  But in contrast to statements from Texas water officials that Chihuahua is not suffering from drought, Duarte said the reservoirs in his state were only at 30 percent capacity on average.

“Juarez is in the middle of the desert and has a sufficient (water supply) for its inhabitants, but that is enough,” Duarte said. “We’re the only desert that has to pay water because of a treaty, and that cannot continue.”

In its latest assessment of the prevailing water situation,  Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua) ranked Chihuahua and three other border states as among the worst-hit entities in the country by a drought that could expand from 38 percent to 41 percent of national territory in the coming weeks. Conagua Director David Korenfeld projected “below average rains” for a large swath of Mexico.

Late last month, the U.S. section of the IBWC announced that both the U.S. and Mexico released “significant volumes of water” from Amistad Reservoir on the Rio Grande to satisfy agricultural and municipal water demands in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Still, the IBWC clarified that the releases did not “impact Mexico’s deficit in deliveries to the United States under the 1944 Water Treaty.”

The renewed discord between Chihuahua and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas over the 1944 treaty was not mentioned in the May 2 joint presidential statement issued after the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City.

Up the Rio Grande, meanwhile, legal disputes over allegations of illegal groundwater pumping and the apportionment of river water between New Mexico and Texas overlay a deepening mood of crisis in the Paso del Norte borderland. Southern New Mexico farmers at a recent Elephant Butte Irrigation  District meeting in the town of Anthony had pessimistic words in response to news of a drastically scaled-back supply of Rio Grande irrigation water for 2013.

“It looks like we’re all screwed,” summed up Dona Ana County alfalfa farmer Ted Argeanas.  “Everybody’s already pumping. It costs a ton of money to pump water.”

Locally, the starting price for drilling a well is estimated at $35,000.

Another longtime Dona Ana County farmer, Sammy Singh Jr., described how the drought has behaved like a voracious predator threatening first to devour the small growers before working its way up the economic ladder to the big prey.

“It’s getting too difficult to farm. The small farmers are going out of production and you’re going to see the mega farmers go within two years,” Singh was quoted in the El Paso press. “I’m talking 1,000-acre farms that are going to go broke.”

By many accounts, farmers across the state line in Texas are likewise hard-pressed by the shortage of Rio Grande irrigation water this growing season.

“I’ve been farming 38 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Lower El Paso Valley grower Ramon Tirres said in a separate interview.

According to Jesus “Chuy” Reyes, El Paso County Water Improvement Board No. 1 general manager, farmers in his district will receive 6 inches of water per acre in 2013, compared with 4 acre-feet per acre in a normal year. 

Sources: El Paso Times, May 6, 2013. Article by Ramon Renteria. Albuquerque Journal,  May 5, 2013.  Article by John Fleck. Rio Grande Guardian, May 4, 2013. Article by Steve Taylor. Proceso/Apro, May 3, 2013. Article by Patricia Mayorga. La Jornada, May 3, 2013. Article by Miroslava Breach. KVIA.com, May 2, 2013. El Diario de Juarez,  May 1, 2013. Article by Martha Elba Figueroa. El Diario de El Paso, April 6 and 7, 2013;
May 3, 2013. Articles by Horacio Carrasco,  the Associated Press and editorial staff.

(Creative Commons feature image via Flickr by: USDAgov)

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Frontera NorteSur

Frontera NorteSur (FNS) is the online news service of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University. Since the early 1990s, FNS has reported on the borderlands, Mexico and beyond. In addition to publishing FNS, the Center for Latin American and Border Studies sponsors lectures, hosts conferences and promotes graduate and undergraduate courses. FNS Editor Kent Paterson has covered the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and Latin America for more than 30 years as a print and radio journalist.

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