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Bernardo Gonzalez has tilled the Mexicali Valley for half a century, but he says he has never had a harvest as bitter as the one he fears he'll reap soon: crops withered by their loss of precious Colorado River water.
The 82-year-old is caught in the currents of an international water dispute that could leave him and 2,500 other Mexican farmers in Baja California high and dry, in one of an increasing number of conflicts that characterize U.S.-Mexico border water policy.
"We're afraid of what might happen," said Gonzalez, who has worked his 45 acres since 1937, when Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas gave him expropriated land. "This is one of the most valuable farms around here. But it won't be if they put cement in the canal."
He's referring to the All-American Canal that has transported water since 1944 from the Colorado River westward into California's Imperial Valley, helping turn a desolate and arid wasteland into a $1 billion-a-year farm economy.
The canal's operator, the Imperial Irrigation District, says it soon will begin a project to reline a porous 23-mile section of the canal, converting it from clay to concrete. That would save the vast amounts of water lost to seepage but would devastate Gonzalez and the other farmers who have come to depend on it for groundwater.
Mexican authorities including Baja Gov. Eugenio Elorduy and Mexican Cabinet members have complained to the U.S. government to stop the project, so far to no avail. Mexico says it violates a 1944 water accord that calls on the United States to consult with Mexico on any project that affects water supplies.
The State Department and an international body established to settle water disputes between the United States and Mexico have said California legally is entitled to line the canal. And while officials in California are unwilling to back down from the lining project, they have discussed the possibility of "good faith" projects on the U.S. side of the border to increase the quantity and quality of Colorado River water that Mexico receives.
The stakes are high. Seepage totaling as much as 2 percent of all the water transported from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley has brought prosperity to the northeast Mexicali Valley, which is what the Imperial Valley is called south of the border. Losing it would create economic, social and environmental problems, Baja officials warn.
"We are concerned with any possibility of significant reduction of what we receive from the Colorado River," Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said Friday. "That's where we get our water from."
Castaneda's adviser on binational water issues, Ambassador Alberto Szekely, said in an interview last week that Mexico is about to step up the pressure to have the project stopped or changed.
The Imperial district, the largest irrigation district in the United States, has talked for years about lining the more porous parts of the canal with concrete. But plans have not advanced, partly because of plentiful supplies of Colorado River water -- and because of Mexico's adamant claim that the subterranean water rightfully belongs to it.
The district has not conceded the Mexican claim, and in fact language in the 1944 water agreement is vague about who owns subterranean water, merely requiring both sides to consult the other any time one side's actions might affect the other.
Juan Pablo Hernandez, Baja's agricultural development secretary, said no such consultation or negotiation has occurred.
Alfonso Cortes, a researcher in water policy at the College of the Northern Border in Mexicali, said the "unilateral decision" to line the canal is one of the most serious groundwater issues facing the United States and Mexico and would alter farming throughout the Mexicali Valley.
"This project will cause many conflicts and social damage," he said. "More than 30,000 people live in this area, and what will happen to their livelihoods? What will happen to their drinking water?"
California officials say the lining project violates neither the letter nor spirit of the binational water agreement and that asking Southern California not to line the canal so that the water can continue to seep out and aid the Mexicali Valley is asking too much.
For one thing, the irrigation district has paid for the water that Mexican farmers are using, California officials said, according to a formula under the 1944 treaty that divvies up Colorado River water. The agreement calls for Mexico to receive 1.5 million acre-feet of water, roughly one-third of what California gets.
"They're getting the benefit of water that we've already been charged for," said Dennis Underwood, Colorado River specialist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "We should be inefficient (and not line the canals) because we want to help our neighbor?"
That position is supported by the International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency in El Paso, Texas, that has arranged for talks between Southern California and Mexican water officials about lining the All-American Canal.
"We've had discussions on the lining of the All-American Canal over a period of years," spokeswoman Sally Spener said. "Certainly it's been our view that the U.S. is within its rights."
U.S. officials note that along with receiving its full allocation under the 1944 treaty, Mexico also receives about 200,000 acre-feet a year because of problems with a storage facility in Imperial County -- water that, like the canal seepage, "belongs" to the United States.
Discussions between the United States and Mexico over the lining issue have stalled amid an acrimonious dispute between the two countries over the Rio Grande. But California officials insist they are willing to resume discussions.
"Our goal has to be: How do we improve your position while protecting our own?" said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.
After years of discussions, the Imperial district is going ahead full throttle with plans to line the All-American Canal and will issue a request for bids. The district has come under increased pressure to reduce its Colorado River usage or to produce water savings by relining the canal or through other methods, including leaving some of the half-million acres of Imperial Valley farmland fallow.
That pressure is coming from the U.S. government, which has ordered California -- which is perceived as a water hog -- to cut back so that neighboring Arizona and Nevada can have more Colorado River water.
Pressure also is coming from California, which has urgent water needs in urban centers because of population and industrial growth and has been looking to buy extra water from the Imperial district. The district controls 75 percent of the state's allocation of the Colorado River.
The powerful Imperial district has been enticed by a deal to sell excess water to water-short San Diego County for hundreds of millions of dollars, although the deal has yet to be completed and faces political opposition and a possible court challenge from environmentalists.
In any case, many California officials deem the canal's lining a foregone conclusion. The state Legislature has budgeted $125 million to reline the 23- mile section of the canal, with completion set for 2005.
Tomas Martinez Saldana, a professor at the College of Postgraduates in Chapingo, Mexico, and a water expert, said the Mexicali Valley dispute is an example of the border water problems that have grown as population and industrial growth have boomed.
Oddly, as water problems have become more acute, cross-border cooperation has, if anything, lessened, Martinez and Cortes said.
"There have always been disputes and always will be," Martinez said. "But both nations should review water treaties that are decades old and are no longer relevant. And they should see these problems not as border problems but as important national issues."