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U.S. and Mexico facing environmental, water problems as border population soars

May 9, 1999

SAN DIEGO -- The 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border area will face a crushing population increase in the next century and governments should start planning if they want to deal with pollution and other problems, an upcoming study says. "Currently, the environment is at risk. The situation will deteriorate significantly in the future if population and economic growth continue at present rates without significant changes in regional development," according to the study by the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, a San Diego-based consortium of nine universities. The study is scheduled to be issued this week at a meeting of U.S. and Mexican border officials in Ensenada, Mexico.

The report summarizes findings from government, business and scientific representatives who met in December. It predicts that the population of 25 U.S. counties and 35 Mexican municipalities along the border could double to as many as 24 million by 2020. The largest increases could come along the U.S. side of the Texas border and in Mexico's Baja California, where foreign-owned maquiladoras, or assembly plants, have thrived.

Already, sewage from overloaded Mexican systems occasionally spill across the border, while thousands of Mexicans live in squatter towns in Tijuana that lack basic sanitation and services. The report says the twin cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico face impending water shortages, along with growing communities in Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. The situation could heighten tensions among ranchers, mining companies, developers and other water users, the report says.

"These population trends portend serious problems for border communities in terms of infrastructure deficits, availability of water and energy, and negative environmental impacts on water, air and natural resources," according to the report. The report suggests that border communities make greater efforts to reuse water and waste and to diversify local economies through new industries such as eco-tourism.

Border officials typically are busy "putting out fires and addressing immediate problems and emergencies," said Paul Ganster of San Diego State University, one of the report's authors. "We're trying to get communities and border stakeholders to start thinking ahead. ... It's a wake-up call."