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Rio Grande Valley irrigators say diplomatic efforts have failed to get them promised water from Mexico, and they are seeking $500 million in damages from the Mexican government.
Seventeen irrigation districts and 29 individual water rights holders announced today that they will pursue the claims under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Under terms of a 1944 treaty, Mexico is to send the United States an average of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually from six Rio Grande tributaries and the United States is to send Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons enough water to flood an acre of land 1 ft deep.
Mexico has owed water for the past decade. By the summer of 2002, Rio Grande farmers were going out of business and municipal water stores were running low. State and federal officials pressured the Bush administration to make the debt a national priority.
Despite Mexico agreeing to several partial payments, some of the plaintiffs think the government has not pushed hard enough.
Heavy rains in 2003 and 2004 largely replenished South Texas' two Rio Grande reservoirs and allowed Mexico to reduce its debt from 1.5 million acre-feet to less than 800,000 acre-feet.
However, the irrigators argue that none of that water comes from the designated tributaries, which are providing water for a thriving agricultural region in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
They say that unless Mexico gets used to letting some of that water go, South Texans will be short of water every time there is a drought.
Nancie Marzulla, a Washington-based attorney who has a history of representing water users and irrigation water districts, is representing the Rio Grande Valley water interests.
Sher position is that NAFTA requires countries to compensate for taken property and forbids discriminatory treatment of foreign investors.
Attorneys for the group sent paperwork on the claim to Mexican officials Friday.
"Mexico has discriminated against these U.S. citizens in favor of its own farmers," Marzulla said.
She said the NAFTA provision pursued in this action has been used about a dozen times in the history of the trade agreement, with many successful outcomes.