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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Juarez Water

Air Date: Week of

The residents of Juarez, Mexico depend on a single aquifer as their sole source of water. Hydrologists estimate that this aquifer, which runs beneath the city, may run out of fresh water within five years. As part of the Border Stories series, Sandy Tolan portrays the desert city's search for an important commodity.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some people call petroleum the 20th century's most crucial resource. But in the 21st century, others say fresh water will become the more valued commodity. In arid regions across the globe, growing urban populations are competing with agricultural interests for scarce and fast depleting aquifers. For example, the desert town of Juarez, Mexico, across from El Paso, Texas, depends upon a single aquifer as its only source of water. But so many people are migrating to Juarez, and so fast, that the city is running out of fresh water. The future of this burgeoning town is in question. As part of the series "Border Stories", Sandy Tolan reports.

TOLAN: Sunday afternoon on the southern bank of the Rio Bravo, known on the other side as the Rio Grande. This narrow desert river is so dammed and diverted, you could cross from Mexico to the United States in ten long steps. Here, the brown silty band joins the states of New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua. On the day of rest for Mexican factory workers and their families, Berta Pallan has brought her kids down here to cool off and to bathe. Like hundreds of thousands of others in the sprawling shanty towns of Juarez, her family has no running water.


VOICEOVER: Most of my neighbors can be seen at two or three o'clock in the morning hauling water from five or six blocks away. Because there's no hose or water lines, we are really struggling.

TOLAN: Her husband earns $240 a month assembling auto parts in a maquiladora, a border factory. She adds a few more dollars fashioning ceramics. The family spends nearly a third of its income on water. Water delivered by truck is the most expensive kind, paid for by the people who can least afford it. Seven years after her arrival from the south of Mexico, Berta Pallan is still waiting.


VOICEOVER: They say in two or three years we'll have water pipes. If water comes out of them, who knows, they're putting in pipes. But I am saying that in two or three years there won't be a drop of water. Pipes, yes; water, no.

TOLAN: The source of Berta's skepticism, news accounts in the Juarez media citing hydrologists' estimates that the Hueco Bolson, the aquifer beneath may the city, may run out of fresh water within five years. At the moment, Juarez has no other source of water. The Hueco Bolson is it. Even the scarce share of the Rio Grande is assigned by treaty to Mexico's farmers.


TOLAN: The hills above the river are covered with shacks of tar paper and wooden factor pallets and adorned by young melia trees planted in hope. The city grows by 50,000 new residents a year, families who have given up the farm and headed north. They live in colonias bearing names like Puerto de Anapra and Puerto la Paz. But here there's no port, no boats, and hardly any water.


VOICEOVER: With every passing day, the reserve is getting lower and lower.

TOLAN: Resting against his family's shack in Anapra, Raul Garces watches as a teenager shovels out stone and dry cement from a flatbed truck, soon to be made into a concrete post to anchor an electric pole that will bring light. Running water is supposed to come soon, as well, but Garces is unsure.


VOICEOVER: The article I've read said the reserve has at least five, maybe six or seven years left. What are we going to do then? Imagine that. Imagine what's going to happen with Juarez. We'll all die of thirst. Is that what's going to happen? I mean, people will have to migrate from here to somewhere else where there's water.


TOLAN: Every gallon in Juarez from these Anapra bound water trucks filling up just south of the El Paso line, to the thousands of homes and factories connected by pipe, comes from the once vast freshwater aquifer stretching beneath both sides of the Rio Grande. As more Mexicans come to build lives along the border, they take over vacant lands and demand often for years their rights to running water. When they finally get it, individual use skyrockets as more and vigorous straws sip at the same dwindling source. As this happens, the fresh water of the Hueco Bolson depletes, and the brackish water below begins to flow into the city's wells.

SIQUIEROS: Once they get connected to the water system, they start consuming a lot more. So, it's a vicious circle.

TOLAN: Louise Felipe Sequieros is Director of IMIP, the Ministry of Planning in Juarez. He thumbs through a recent newspaper supplement boasting of new government built water hookups in the poor colonias.

SEQUIEROS: Well, this is publicity from the state of Chihuahua, and they're talking about giving water to Anapra, to 25,000 residents, 42 new wells in two years.

TOLAN: Sequieros' agency is government funded, but politically autonomous. Its role as an architect and planner for the city of a million and a half is a to look ahead.

SEQUIEROS: Every 20 years, population doubles. The same period, water consumption multiplied by seven. So, what's going to happen in the future? We're going to have, by the year 2020, at least twice as much need of water.

TOLAN: But Sequieros says with 15,000 new homes built by the private sector last year, with new maquiladoras projected, and with new colonias springing up every year, the city is not sufficiently concerned.

SEQUIEROS: They are more worried about coping with today's demands more than building an infrastructure that solves the problem for the next 20 years. It's hard for them to get to this point where you invest for a longer period. The crisis is going to come later.

RAMIREZ: All I can say concerning the Hueco Bolson is that there's not sufficient information concerning the depletion.

TOLAN: Alberto Ramirez of the Municipal Water Authority in Juarez.

RAMIREZ: We are concerned because that could mean that the water quality will deteriorate in time. But there's not enough information to say that in five or ten years we won't have any good quality water left.

TOLAN: The Water Authority is skeptical of the conclusions of hydrologists north of the border, including the U.S. Geological Survey. Juarez officials don't appreciate it when they're told by the big neighbor to the north that their water is about to become too salty to use.

RAMIREZ: There's a real need to intensify the studies that has being performed until now and the modeling of this aquifer.

TOLAN: Juarez' model suggests there may be more time. Officials certainly hope that's the case because nothing is in the works to replace the Hueco Bolson within five years.

RAMIREZ: We're not just sitting here and waiting for the Hueco to deplete completely. We're starting to take some actions.

TOLAN: Like drawing contingency plans for water rationing, or mixing brackish water from bad wells with sweet water from good wells, or negotiating with the farmers for first use of the Rio Grande waters, a tough sell which would anyway provide only a quarter of the city's current water use. Long term, the city wants to pipe in water from a neighboring aquifer abutting the New Mexico border and from another aquifer west of the city, but these sources are uncertain to provide significant water, and in any case would cost. A recent 20-year plan put water delivery systems for the city at 830 million dollars.

RAMIREZ: Of course, there's always the financial part, which is the most difficult part for us because even though we may have the projects, we don't have enough money to do them.

TOLAN: For many, the techno-fix is desalination. El Paso is discussing its own plans for this, but for Juarez, desal could cost several hundred million dollars more a year. Given the state of Mexico's economy, this seems unlikely.


TOLAN: But if Juarez' prospects for more water in the near future are dim, just north of the line they're better. El Paso is shifting its reliance from the Hueco using more Rio Grande water and buying up water ranches from West Texas irrigation districts. For years the city has battled New Mexico for rights to their water. And while the courts have often favored New Mexico, the market may be the ultimate arbiter.

STAHMANN: You have a lot of foliage. Actually it's very beautiful.

TOLAN: Bill Stahmann is the Pecan King of southern New Mexico. His family-run corporation shares the same Chihuahuan desert with the struggling lilia trees down in Anapra. But here in the Mesilla Valley, the desert is transformed by rights codified under a 1906 treaty with Mexico to use the Rio Grande water. So the 3,600 acres of this single farm, watering some of the thirstiest plants in all of irrigated agriculture, uses the same amount of water as 125,000 average residents of Juarez.

Bill Stahmann knows the chili and pecan farmers here in the Mesilla Valley may hold the cards to the city's future.

STAHMANN: If people move into these cities as these cities grow, then they need to acquire more water to take care of their population.

TOLAN: This farm has been in Stahmann's family since 1932. Last year, the company shipped nine million pounds of pecans. But this family business is above all a business. And there's a saying in this part of the west, "Water doesn't run downhill, it runs uphill towards money." Now, international working groups are meeting to consider the region's collective future. And irrigators here say if the cities get thirsty enough, and if the significant legal and international political hurdles are jumped, they will be willing to treat their hard won water rights as a free market commodity.

STAHMANN: Well, you know, everything is for sale. It's just you have to hit the right price. And if you get the right price, then you sell. So I'm saying, yes, it could be a deal.

TOLAN: Some believe, even if this does happen, it will happen too late for Juarez.

MADDOCK: Traditionally, the desert communities have risen and fallen on the availability of water.

TOLAN: Tom Maddock is a hydrologist at the University of Arizona.

MADDOCK: And obviously, if Juarez does not have available water, then they can't continue the growth. There isn't enough water available there to support the population, so the population will probably move away. The trouble is, is that interim period can be quite confrontational.

TOLAN: For Juarez, Tom Maddock expects more battles between farmers and city officials over water rights, and a deteriorating aquifer growing ever saltier. Potential health consequences alone associated with rising salinity, hypertension and kidney problems chief among them, have not been addressed by officials in Juarez.

MADDOCK: I don't really hold a lot of future under those conditions. Sorry to paint such a grim picture, but it's kind of the reality of living in a desert.

TOLAN: But the idea that Juarez may not have enough water for the people already living there, much less for its future growth, has not trickled down to the tens of thousands heading north each year.


TOLAN: A man with an accordion walks against four lanes of traffic inching forward to the U.S. border crossing. He just arrived from the south, rented a room where he sleeps with his wife and four children. Days, he looks for work in the maquiladora. Nights, he plays for tips, his daughter trailing behind him with a paper cup. There's nothing left in the south, he says. For work, everyone knows you have to come north.

For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan in Juarez, Mexico.

CURWOOD: Our story on Juarez water is part of "Border Stories," a series by Homeland Productions, made possible in part with funds from the Ford Foundation.



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