From: Erica Werner, Associated Press
Published February 17, 2006 12:00 AM

Baja California Governor Sees Dangers in U.S. Stance on Canal Dispute

WASHINGTON — Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy accused the U.S. government Thursday of inaction on a controversial border canal project, warning of a political backlash in Mexico if this country fails to act.

"This situation will blow in our faces if it is not attended to by the U.S government ... This is easy merchandise to be sold and handled by very antagonistic forces of the U.S. in our border, in my state," Elorduy said at a media round-table organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

"We are astonished as to why the Department of Interior does not look into this situation and set up a working group to solve this situation," he said. "This must not be underestimated. When you get farmers in Mexico against their water it makes any farmer very mad."

An Interior Department spokesman, though, contended talks must proceed through normal diplomatic channels, including a meeting set for Friday between Elorduy and State Department officials.

At issue are plans to line 23 miles of the 80-mile All-American Canal with concrete starting this year. The canal runs just north of the eastern portion of California's border with Mexico, directing water from the Colorado River that runs along the California-Arizona border to farms in California.

An estimated 67,000 acre-feet of water per year is lost to seepage from the porous canal that was built in the 1930s, and the project aims to reclaim that water for American farmers. But Mexican farmers, wetlands and wildlife depend heavily on the water, leading to strong opposition.

Elorduy, a member of Mexico's business-friendly National Action Party (PAN), contended that impacts on Mexico have not been studied. His administration wants a delay until more work can done.

Mexican President Vicente Fox raised the issue with President Bush in two meetings last year, according to Elorduy's staff, and Elorduy also discussed the canal with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September. Schwarzenegger promised a thorough review.

But Elorduy said the U.S. government has been unresponsive.

"The Department of the Interior and its secretary, Gale Norton, have shut themselves out from this topic and do not want to talk about it," he said.

Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby said he was aware of no current request from Elorduy for a meeting with Norton. He said the canal would be discussed at a meeting next month between Norton and Jose Luis Luege Tamargo, Mexico's environment secretary, as well as at Friday's meeting between Elorduy and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon.

"This is an important issue. Interior has been working on it consistently and constantly with the appropriate Mexican federal officials. We're going to continue to work on it," Quimby said. "The appropriate forums are through the treaty-designated diplomatic channels, and we're following that course."

Mexicans will elect a new president in July and there are state elections next year. Elorduy's environmental secretary, Enrique Villegas, said opposition parties were using the plan to stir anti-U.S. sentiment.

"This is being fed to farmers as something that is one more gesture of the imperialist government of the U.S.," Villegas said. "This is a topic that, if not properly addressed, will weaken the perception of the good relationship that we do have with the U.S."

Construction on the $135 million project, authorized by Congress in 1988, is supposed to begin later this year and wrap up in 2008. A federal district judge in Las Vegas last week ruled against environmentalists and Mexican agricultural interests trying to stop the plan.

Source: Associated Press

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