Rains Help Mexico Repay Water It Owes U.S., but Could New Drought Bring New Debt?

For 12 lean years, Mexico prayed for rain, hoping the water it owed the United States would pour from parched skies over the Rio Grande Basin.

MEXICO CITY — For 12 lean years, Mexico prayed for rain, hoping the water it owed the United States would pour from parched skies over the Rio Grande Basin.

Those downpours finally came, washing away most of a water debt that had enraged Texas farmers and tested President Vicente Fox's relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush. At its height in 2002, the debt reached 489 billion gallons (1.9 trillion liters).

Flush from two-plus years of wet weather on its northern border, Mexico has agreed to make good on all its outstanding water payments by September, then meet annual quotas spelled out in a treaty signed the year before World War II ended.

The agreement announced during a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removes a significant point of tension before Fox meets Bush in Texas on Wednesday.

Critics in Texas have accused the Mexican government of skirting its end of the bilateral bargain until a couple of rainy years made everything all right. They wonder if another drought would lead to more shortfalls.


Geronimo Gutierrez, the sub-secretary for North America at the Foreign Relations Department, said Mexico has been trying to repay the debt since 2001, and that abundant rains simply sped that process.

He said this country will meet the treaty without causing shortages for Mexican farmers even if drought returns.

"What would happen if it doesn't rain? This program allows us to guarantee that there is enough supply for urban and agricultural demand in Mexico," Gutierrez said.

Under the 1944 treaty to guarantee the sharing of water, Mexico promised to send the United States an average of 350,000 acre feet of water over a five-year period from six Rio Grande tributaries. In return, America ships south 1.5 million acre feet from the Colorado River. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters), or enough to flood an acre of a land a foot deep.

In 1992, Mexico stopped sending the required amount from the Rio Grande, saying drought had depleted its supplies. Water from the Colorado continued to pour across the border to the Mexicali area, another major farming area.

By the summer of 2002, South Texas farmers were going out of business for lack of water, while satellite images showed irrigated crops flourishing on the Mexican side of the border. A group of U.S. farmers eventually filed suit against Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming a dearth of water cost them US$500 million.

Fox's government accelerated efforts to pay the debt after Hurricanes Olaf and Nora drenched the border in 2003. Last year, heavy rains caused flooding, but also filled reservoirs.

This month, Mexico agreed to give its northern neighbor 578,000 acre feet of water, covering the last chunk of the debt. It also promised to pay 470,000 acre feet over the next three years to keep current with the treaty.

Arturo Duran, commissioner of the U.S. side of the International Boundaries and Water Commission, called the agreement "an incredible sign" of cooperation.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Mexico should have been charged interest for falling so far behind.

"The number one priority is this is never allowed to happen again," said Chris Paulitz, a Hutchison spokesman.

Duran, whose commission works with a Mexican equivalent to apply water treaties and settle trade disputes, urged new accords making it harder for Mexico to fall behind on payments.

"We need to give the treaty some teeth," he said.

Revamping the treaty may be overdue. The population on the two sides of the border has increased dramatically since the agreement.

Sixty percent of the repaid water is expected come from dams in a single border state, Tamaulipas, angering farmers there.

"Who can guarantee it will rain next year?" said Perfecto Solis, president of a Tamaulipas corn cooperative. "If it doesn't, the United States will have its water, but what will happen to us?"

Source: Associated Press