EXCLUSIVE: Farmers trip Mexican president’s plan to settle water debt with US

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Takeover of Chihuahua’s largest dam enters third week as water treaty’s Oct. 24 deadline looms

LA BOQUILLA, Mexico (Border Report) – A torrent of water flows from a valve at the base of Chihuahua’s largest dam. The pressure builds a current that rushes past tall palm trees near the banks of a channel leading to the Conchos River.

If Mexico had its way, that water would end up in the Rio Grande and, eventually, in the hands of South Texas farmers. U.S. federal officials say Mexico owes them nearly a year’s worth water as per a 1944 treaty and has exactly one month to settle the debt. 

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledges as much. He has promised to make payments and began tapping La Boquilla dam earlier this month over the objections of thousands of Chihuahua farmers.

On Thursday, the water flowed not to the Conchos but to local peanut farms. Chihuahua farmers have taken control of the dam and show no intention of giving it up.

“If we don’t have water, how are we supposed to make a living? We tried to explain to the president that we don’t have as much water as he says we do. But he refused to hear us out. He sent the National Guard instead,” said Guerrero C. Torres, one of the hundreds of farmers taking turns blocking access to La Boquilla.

Torres and others told Border Report the Sept. 8 takeover of the dam came after soldiers threw tear gas canisters at hundreds of farmers from the towns of Delicias, San Francisco and Camargo who showed up to protest the opening of the water valves. The government disputes the order if events but the escalation of violence enraged the farmers.

“I saw women crying, elderly men on the ground gasping for air. They had weapons but we had our hands,” Torres recalled.

The soldiers pulled out but the tension grew. That night, the National Guard arrested three protesters and tried to drive them to their base. Several farmers followed in trucks. One soldier told superiors he thought he heard shots. He opened fire with a rifle killing Jessica Silva and wounding her husband, Jaime Torres.

The soldiers since have set up a perimeter around Las Virgenes, a smaller dam in Chihuahua with nowhere near enough water to cover the payments to the U.S.

Chihuahua farmers gathered Thursday, Sept. 25, 2020, in La Boquilla, Chihuahua, where farmers and members of Mexico’s National Guard clashed Sept. 8. The National Guard was noticeably absent from the La Boquilla on Thursday. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

On Thursday, the National Guard was noticeably absent from La Boquilla, where farmers placed posters at the entrance gates and flew Mexican flags over canvas tents where they cooked meat and drank cold beverages to stave off heat and humidity.

‘We want people to know the truth’

The valley that comprises San Francisco de Conchos, Camargo and Delicias has an abundance of hay, sorghum, corn fields and pecan trees. It also has a healthy cattle and dairy industry. Plenty of tractors and grain houses can be seen from the rugged roads that line these communities.

But, as Arturo Zubia Fernandez explains, all that wealth depends on water from La Boquilla. Without it, Chihuahua and other states will suffer.

“Every year 60,000 people come from South and Central Mexico to work on Chihuahua farms. Some bring their families and some stay for good. We are like a little United States,” says the farmer and Mayor of Camargo. “But if we cannot water our crops next spring, what will happen to those people? Other businesses do not have enough jobs to offer. The government cannot take care of them, so they will go where there are jobs.”

That includes the United States, he said.

The protesters who took over the dam are no rabble. Some employ up to 200 workers while others lead local farmers’ associations. As a group, they have hired water experts and engineers bent on disputing the president’s assertions that Chihuahua has enough water to contribute to debt payments.

Vicente Armendariz, who on Wednesday volunteered to monitor two officials from Mexico’s National Water Commission who came to check out water levels, said it’s clear the dam is well below September levels and that Chihuahua is experiencing a drought.

“Look at the watermarks. They are several meters below last year”, he said while riding on a boat tailing the federal officials.

The farmers’ water experts say La Boquilla is at 32% capacity. The Lopez Obrador administration puts the figure closer to 70%.

Armendariz, who owns a farm and a dairy that employs 25, said the Mexican government doesn’t take into account new sediment and debris that has been building up for more than a decade.

One of the federal officials, Water Commission Undersecretary for Technical Affairs Dante Gomez, declined to comment about the takeover of La Boquilla or if Thursday’s survey had changed his mind about the water levels. He did say he came to measure water depth and admitted a sediment survey has not been taken there since 2004.

The water depth at La Boquilla on Thursday measured 34.85 meters (114 feet) at its lowest level, 19.5 meters (64 feet) at its highest.

‘We’re not leaving until they come with a signed document’

The federal officials’ visit is a breakthrough amid a tense war between the farmers and Chihuahua state government and the Lopez Obrador administration. The President has accused Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral of rousing the farmers, while Corral says Lopez Obrador is being misinformed by underlings.

On Friday, Corral issued a statement saying the president is incorrect in saying Chihuahua has only put in 55% of its share of water for the treaty. “There is no statute that says how much water each state has to contribute to the treaty,” he said, adding that his state even in a drought has handed over more water than any other state.

Corral added that he’s not opposed to the U.S.-Mexico 1944 water treaty, but that his state had done its share and the federal government has mismanaged the water for the past five years.

Armendariz noted that the Water Commission officials didn’t even bring sonar equipment or a GPS device to do their survey. The officials relied on a metal square attached to a rope.

Two officials from Mexico’s National Water Commission check out water levels at the Boquilla dam Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“Until they come with a signed document guaranteeing they’re not going to take our water, we’re not leaving La Boquilla,” he said.

Camargo Mayor Zubia said it’s important to settle the real amount of water at the dam because “we want people to know the truth.” However, he said that if the federal government insists on using water from La Boquilla to pay down its debt to the United States, that will not only wreck the economy of Northern Mexico farms, but also lead to increases in the price of crops and dairy products 

“This year’s no longer an issue. We are done watering at the end of September. The issue is how much land will be idle, how many jobs will be lost by Spring,” he said.

Zubia and several other local political leaders have been coming and going from La Boquilla, to stand in solidarity with the farmers.

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