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EL PASO: Draining Hueco Bolson
Megan Lardner

Jagged mountains rim the west Texas desert where El Paso and Ciudad Juarez straddle the U.S.-Mexico border. Here just seven inches of rain fall each year; the earth is golden brown, and green grass is a luxury. A calm flow of Rio Grande water separates these twin cities above ground. But hundreds of feet below the surface where residents cannot see, nature is showing signs of revolt.

There, a fresh water aquifer called the Hueco Bolson - which many had hoped was bottomless - is being sucked dry by nearly three million thirsty border residents, as well as industrial factories and agricultural lands.

"We're starting to bump up against the ceiling," said Ed Hamlyn, program coordinator of the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). "We really have to do something about the water crisis."

With environmentalists and water experts becoming more vocal about the endangered aquifer, El Paso has cut its use back to 50 percent and is biding time by exploring other options. Juarez's position is more difficult; though the city uses half as much water per person as its neighbor, at 1.2 million Juarez has twice as many thirsty people. Juarez pumps aquifer water at full force year-round - even though researchers say at that rate fresh water will run out within as few as five years.

A Desperate Situation

On the hills above Juarez, painted white letters streak the mountainside with words from a local priest. His message: "The bible is truth. Read it."

But at night the letters fade and the mountains sink to black, silhouettes above a sprawling metropolis. From her hillside home beneath the priest's message, Estolia Villareal can see a bright star on an opposite range - El Paso's Franklin Mountains - glowing back at her. El Paso businesses pay to keep the electric lights bright, a symbol of lone star pride aimed south across the border toward Juarez's million plus migrants pressed up against the northern edge of Latin America.

In the face of such optimism, the hand-written message of faith must suffice for Villareal and the 300 families she calls neighbors, who are among hundreds of thousands of Juarez residents living without water. Ten years ago, Villareal arrived in Juarez from Mexico's interior and set up home on this hill that doubles as the city garbage dump. The air is sour; in the summer, steam rises from the debris. Trucks labor up the hill every eighth day, filling 55-gallon drums with water used for washing, but not safe to drink. People here know little about the aquifer, and even less about the fact that their ever-expanding population on the hills exacerbates Juarez's water crisis.

Villareal's days start at 3 AM, long after the whir of the maquilas below has slipped into silence. With a blue plastic bucket in hand, she steps through the front door of the cramped cement house she shares with her husband, six children and grandchildren. Opening a faucet in the yard, she waits. Soon a light stream flows, tipping her bucket with water.

Two years ago, in desperation Villareal and her neighbors dug trenches to run water through a hose up from the neighborhood below, which does have running water. Yet even for those with such fortune, access to water is sporadic - usually just a few hours a day - due to constant demand from residents and industry.

"During the day there's nothing," Villareal said, seated at her wooden kitchen table in the late afternoon, her clasped hands crowned by ten painted nails, red and chipping.

Scrimping for water daily, Villareal has little time to be concerned for the rest of Juarez. Indeed, water will never come to this community of "invaders" because they lack legitimate papers to claim the land. Her story echoes that of the 60,000 people who arrive yearly to work in Juarez's maquiladoras - factories that import raw parts to make products like computers for re-exportation, usually to the United States.

"People come to the south promising paradise, work, a good life here," she said, raising her voice as two grandchildren tore through the kitchen waving plastic bags filled with fried banana chips and spicy sauce to sell that night in the streets below. "We don't know what it's like until we get here."

The Work Trail

Driving south from the city center toward where urban sprawl meets desert sage, an eye-full of shiny new factories bursts into view. In the wind, huge banners snap against the buildings. Their invitation: "Operators needed".

Beside the sleek newly-paved highway, modest cement dwellings abound, each plot an effort to house the steady stream of migrants who - like Villareal - come here knowing they can earn twice as much as they can in other parts of Mexico. So inviting is the pull to five-to-seven dollars a day border jobs that Juarez's mushrooming population is set to double within 20 years, to 2.5 million.

"People will relocate to wherever the job centers are," said Tom Fullerton, an expert on the maquiladora industry at UTEP. "The growth has been so rapid that it exceeds the number of new workers into Juarez, and managers have resorted to recruiting people from the interior."

Juarez's 300-400 maquiladora factories - the largest grouping along Texas's border and second only to Tijuana, Baja California in total number - have undeniably brought increased prosperity. Eighteen industrial parks house factories owned by companies like Delphi, General Electric, RCA, and Sony - and together they employ some 240,000 people.

But critics say the city is selling itself to industry at the expense of providing adequate infrastructure to serve the industry's lifeblood - the workers.

"Half the city grew by unregulated invasion," said Humberto Uranga, head of Water Information at Juarez's Water Commission. "That is what the maquila brought here. The promoters of the maquiladora industry don't take water into account."

But Juarez's maquiladoras - mostly high-capital electronics manufacturers that have replaced the garment industry of earlier years - drain only about 10-15 percent of the city's total aquifer use, according to the Water Commission's Edmundo Urrutia, who specializes in maquiladora water use.

Though industry water drain seems low compared to some 85-90 percent of Juarez water that is sucked directly into homes, the two factors are inextricably linked. Where there are jobs, humans will follow, and water is needed. Experts predict Juarez's maquiladora industry will employ 251,740 people by 2002. That is nearly double the number of employees in 1992 before NAFTA, according to a study by UTEP. This growth shows no signs of slowing, and neither will the demand for water.

Yet defenders of industry reject attempts to blame NAFTA's effects for the region's water resource troubles, and the aquifer depletion.

"There is serious concern, but the problem of water is world-wide," said Luis Nava, director of the Association of Maquiladoras, which represents the industry in Juarez,

Wearing a blue and white striped tie, his eyes twinkling behind spectacles, Nava has a grandfatherly air that belies his business edge. "Competition is the game of the world," he said, "and if we hit the maquila industry too much, it will go somewhere else."

In fact, Nava sees Juarez's soaring job market as a gateway. "For countries like Mexico, the maquila is a trampoline into the first world if we manage it intelligently," he said.

Yet while Nava envisions a figurative trampoline to economic prosperity, many of Juarez's poorest workers - fed up with lack of infrastructure, substandard housing and inadequate water supplies - use the city quite literally to jump across the border to the promised land, believing everything is better on the other side.

The Economic Divide

Across the border in El Paso, a worker can earn the same amount for a day's work house cleaning - $30 - as for nearly a week's work in one of Juarez's factories.

Crossing the border, however, quickly pits optimism against reality. El Paso has not entirely recovered from the loss of some 14,000 jobs after NAFTA to a cheaper labor market across the border. Today, Texas border cities are among the poorest in the United States.

Even so, there are many who still believe in El Paso. Rocky Daily spends his days selling homes on the outskirts of the city, where the highway disappears into desert and For Sale signs dot the land.

"It's the friendliest city in Texas," the affable Daily assures prospective buyers who stop through his real estate office in Desert Palms village, the last stop out of town to the east.

Billboards welcoming residents home to places named "Las Palmas" and "Oasis Ranch" jut up alongside the highway where junk car lots are giving way to shiny new housing developments. Just this year, Daily's company built 420 new houses.

Out here, twenty miles short of El Paso city limits, the eastern frontier sparkles like gold for developers. "It's the only place El Paso has to grow," Daily said, tapping lightly on his computer keyboard as he looked out his office window toward a uniform army of rooftops.

Born in El Paso, Daily grew up aware of the impending water crisis, but he is nonchalant. "There's no way you can stop a city from growing," he said, shrugging. "We'll have as much water as we can until it runs out."

Yet water is running out, and at a remarkable rate. Through strict conservation efforts, El Paso has lowered its per capita use from 200 gallons per day in 1990 to 167 gallons per day in 1999, but still uses twice as much per person as Juarez. Currently El Paso gets 45 percent of its municipal water from the Hueco Bolson, 15 percent from the Mesilla Bolson aquifer in the west, and 40 percent from the Rio Grande. The city plans to cut down entirely on Hueco Bolson water in the coming years, and rely more on Rio Grande river water to support continued growth. But that presents other problems; environmentalists insist river clean-up - not aquifer depletion - is the first priority.

Still, El Paso water rates are among the cheapest in the southwest. And, critics say, in the rush to revive El Paso's economy, the city has implemented superficial conservation efforts that avoid the heart of the problem: continued growth.

While Juarez's staggering growth is mainly external in the form of new migrants, El Paso's growth is internal - mostly a young, Latino population that is starting families. And rising population means more demand on water resources. But in a city intent on revitalization - both cultural and economic - no one wants to limit growth.

Non-profit director Bess Metcalf looks out over downtown El Paso's high rise banks from her office at the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition, an environmental organization that advocates for river clean-up. She is concerned city conservation efforts are only buying time before the water crisis hits. The real problem, she said, is population growth, which widens the pool of people dependant on the region's water. Indeed, El Paso's population, now at 600,000, is estimated to double in 25 years.

"We can't limit population growth," Metcalf said, her eyes serious behind glasses. "Everybody's wringing their hands a little bit about the lack of water but no one wants to attack the issue."

"We're subsidizing growth by conserving water," she said. "We're just spreading water for more people through these efforts." She said developers need to look seriously at how fast they're developing and where they're developing.

But spreading water is good news for developers like John Edmundson, vice-president of government and public affairs at El Paso's largest building corporation, Hunt Building Corp. Hunt owns more than 5,000 acres of undeveloped land around El Paso and plans to begin development in the coming year.

For developers at Hunt, the issue is not water scarcity, but water economics. "We really don't know how much of that resource exists in this region until we know how much it costs," Edmundson said at the Hunt building on the outskirts of El Paso. "Everything has a price."

And water pricing may become an inevitable part of water politics in the coming years as aquifers like the Hueco Bolson run out of fresh water. Already some Texas farmers - who receive a yearly water ration of 769,000 acre feet from the Rio Grande - are looking into leasing their water rights to El Paso. In the increasingly water-poor region, many say selling their water could be far more profitable than growing crops like pecans, cotton, and alfalfa.

But whether it comes from farmers or from other unexplored aquifers, water is essential to the region's growth in coming years. Edmundson is confident, however, that El Paso's important position along the border - almost midway between the east and west coast of the United States - will keep it on the map.

"El Paso's a natural gateway to and from huge opening markets in the south, which will be hugely beneficial to the world market in coming years," Edmundson said. "The city has a very significant role to play and it's going to bring a lot of people here."

Disappearing Farmland

On both sides of the border, many people are alarmed by the rate at which development is literally "eating up" agricultural lands as the cities expand to absorb growing populations.

The effects of this expansion are clear in Saragoza, a valley southeast of Juarez, where farmland is disappearing at a stunning rate. Residents say more and more of the region's 3,000 farmers are abandoning their land as water resources become more scarce. On both sides of the border, the total area used for farmland has been steadily decreasing over the past ten years.

Lorenzo Gutierrez and his older brother used to be farmers here. Now Gutierrez works in construction and his brother drives a taxi. Their family farm has been sold off piece by piece to new development.

With a Nike USA baseball cap tucked down to shield his eyes from the sun, Gutierrez hooks his thumbs around the brassy cowboy belt buckle dividing his blue jeans and maroon button-down shirt. "We used to grow fruit, big melons, and corn, but not anymore," he said matter-of-factly, surveying what little is left of his land. "There's no more water."

Ironically, there should be more water, not less. When Juarez's second wastewater treatment plant opened last year, just a few miles from Gutierrez's home, city officials promised it would help struggling farmers by taking cleaned, recycled water used by maquiladoras and sending it downstream to farmland.

But farmers say the treated water actually hurts more than it helps. "The water used to be good," Gutierrez said, shaking his head, "but now it burns the earth and the crops with oil and chemicals left over from the maquiladoras."

And agricultural needs are just one of many concerns with which water planners are struggling as they attempt to locate other water sources and try to hold onto what little aquifer water is left for as long as possible.

"Our goal is that the Hueco Bolson lasts as long as possible," said Urrutia of the Water Commission. "We're worried, but water won't dry up from the earth. We just have to bring it from farther away."