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Farmers No Plant Mexico*
Doubts Sprout About Mexico Water Pledges
Agriculture: Farmers in parched Chihuahua state wonder where President Fox will find the agua to repay the nation's debt to U.S., as he has vowed.
By CHRIS KRAUL
TIMES STAFF WRITER
May 29 2002
DELICIAS, Mexico -- Like many other Mexican farmers in the drought-ravaged border state of Chihuahua, Enrique Berjes is wondering where President Vicente Fox will find the water to repay the nation's enormous debt to Texas.
Certainly not from the dried-up reservoirs, rivers and wells that have kept him and 90% of the area's farmers from even planting this spring, their 10th year of drought.
And yet Fox has promised to unveil a plan this week by which Mexico will start paying down the enormous water deficit the U.S. says the country owes it, water that Mexico has failed to deliver to U.S. reservoirs per terms of a 1944 water treaty governing the Rio Grande basin. The debt has caused economic hardship and mounting political antagonism in Texas, where many farmers claim Mexico overuses and wastes the water before it reaches the Rio Grande. Last Thursday, about 20 Texas farmers used their tractors to block traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in Pharr to show their desperation.
But Berjes, 74, says the economic devastation is as bad if not worse in this once-rich farm region of Mexico.
A decade ago, this area was likened to Fresno with mountains--a rich producer of pecans, wheat, sorghum and soy. Mexicans say drought has forced them out of compliance with the water treaty.
"We were the capital of agriculture until the water disappeared, and now it's ruined for everyone," Berjes said.
Once a verdant expanse in this town 50 miles southeast of the state capital, also called Chihuahua, Berjes' farm is parched and slowly blending into the surrounding desert. With each passing year, Berjes has sold off parts of his farm to survive as he waits for the rain to come.
All told, the crisis has cost Chihuahua billions in crop losses and 80,000 farm jobs. There has been a slow erosion of the social fabric as well: The unemployed have migrated to cities such as Chihuahua looking for work, causing crime rates to rise and taxing city services.
The drought has also clobbered the state's cattle industry, which is at the heart of Chihuahua's cowboy culture. Herds statewide have declined from 2 million head in 1992 to about 800,000 now, according to Chihuahua state Agriculture Secretary Alejandro Ramirez. The number of registered cattle brands is down to 50,000 from 90,000 in 1995.
"If it doesn't rain this year, I'll sell everything," said Manuel Terrazas, a Chihuahua rancher who is president of the Chihuahua Regional Cattlemen's Union. "I've got 40% fewer head of cattle and I'm battling to keep that."
One-third of the state's thirsty pecan orchards, once a source of immense prosperity in the state, have been abandoned in recent years because farmers can't afford to keep the faucets on. Berjes sold his 400-acre pecan orchard in 1996.
Berjes' situation is typical in that his irrigation water has been rationed down to about 3% of what he once received, a ration he has sold to a neighboring farm. The groundwater has receded so much that Berjes now must drill wells 1,000 feet deep to reach water, compared with 500 feet in 1990. And the expense of keeping those pumps running and maintained has made farming uneconomical.
So, with no small amount of wry skepticism, Berjes is curious to hear Fox explain how he'll make the water payments. He presumes that much of it would come from Chihuahua state, which traditionally has supplied 56% of the water transferred to Texas reservoirs.
"He's not going to get any from Boquilla, I can tell you that," Berjes said, referring to the largest of the state's 10 dams. It's only 20% full with agua muerto, or dead water, too muddy and otherwise degraded to use for irrigation, officials say.
It will also be difficult for Fox to squeeze savings out of the public nonagricultural water system in cities such as Chihuahua, where citizens already face water rationing and no longer have 24-hour access to water.
Fox's government has said it is requesting major financial help--as much as $500 million--from the United States to finance up to 35 waste-water treatment and recycling projects in four Mexican states that border the United States.
Chihuahua is also pushing the use of hydroponics in raising vegetable crops and cattle forage. An experimental hydroponics project run by the state just south of Berjes' farm has 4 acres of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers under one roof, using one-thousandth as much water as comparable open field crops, said Hector Leon Gallegos, an agricultural advisor to state Gov. Patricio Martinez.
"We are preparing ourselves for the absence of rain in the future of our state," said Leon Gallegos, who added that hydroponic crop systems have made great strides in efficiency in recent years.
But those projects will take time to develop. So water savings--and increased transfers to Texas--will take time, state officials say, even though the national water commission said last week that it had a plan to repay the water debt within five years.
Mexico's water debt has gone from zero in 1992, when the drought began, to 1.5 million acre-feet today. (An acre-foot refers to the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.)
"It's our position that with the current water storage, projected inflows and reduced irrigation, Mexico could make deliveries in partial fulfillment of its obligations," said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso.
Berjes shakes his head at the notion of squeezing more water out of a state he says is bone dry.
"It's a vulgar saying but true: Debo no niego. Pago no tengo. It means 'I don't deny I owe, but I can't pay,'" Berjes said.
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