The head of Mexico's National Water Commission, Cristobal Jarquez, told a Mexican congressional committee that the country won't have to repay any water it owes the United States from the Rio Grande for another five years.
The committee hearing revealed a growing determination among Mexican legislators and officials to put off the debt repayment. Farmers in Texas say Mexico's failure to release water into the nearly-dry river on schedule will cost them huge monetary losses this year.
Jarquez said Mexico had complied with water repayments through 2001, and that if Mexico still owes water by the end of the next "cycle" of the treaty in September, the U.S.-Mexico treaty allows it up to five years to pay that debt back.
"We don't see the United States as having a very solid argument for pressuring us, because Mexico is complying with the treaty," Jarquez said. "In the terms of the treaty, the United States is entitled to a third of the flow of the Rio Bravo, but it is stipulated there that the priority is to attend to the needs of Mexican users first."
However, he hinted that some limited releases of water were being considered.
"We have to attend first to the Mexican population, the border cities, and still have a little more water this a program we're going to start for the farm users of the lower Rio Grande," a group that includes U.S. farmers, Jarquez said.
The Mexican government had been expected to announce a more rapid repayment plan this week, but put off the announcement, saying it needed more time to consult with restive governors and farmers in northern Mexico who oppose releasing any of the country's water.
He said the government would start major water conservation projects in northern Mexico as early as August, and hoped to have them in place by March 2003.
Some legislators accused the United States of unfairly pressuring Mexico during what they described as a severe drought that prevents Mexico from meeting its treaty commitments.
"We cannot and should not yield to false pressure, given that there is no water debt at this time," said Miroslava Garcia Suarez, a congresswoman for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.
Some researchers say that increased use of water for farm irrigation in northern Mexico, rather than any drought, is to blame for the reduced flow of water into the border river.