Colin Woodard

El Rio Not-So-Grande

Here at the tip of Texas, the southernmost point of the Mexican border, leaving the United States has never been easier. Just stroll down Boca Chica Beach, a remote stretch of beach and dunes surrounded by miles of brush and cactus. After a couple of miles you'll notice that all of the cars parked out by the surf have Mexican license plates. Congratulations: you've just walked straight into Mexico.

Of course, it's not supposed to be this easy. A huge delta should be in the way, the mouth of the second longest river in the United States, in fact. But the Rio Grande is gone, sapped completely dry by the thirsty farms and cities of northern Mexico and southern Texas. In its place is a wide sandy beach and a short section of orange nylon fencing erected by U.S. Border Patrol agents, an only partially successful effort to stop wayward American tourists from accidentally wandering right out of the country.

When Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez discovered the Rio Grande in 1519, the river's mouth was more than 30 feet deep and Alvarez sailed nearly 20 miles up the river without running out of room to tack his four unwieldy ocean-going vessels. As late as 1907, steamships carried passengers and cargo as far as Roma, 100 miles inland, while river cities like Brownsville and Matamoros were thriving ports. But now all that's left at the mouth of the 1,885-mile Rio Grande is a still and shallow lagoon of algae-green water that stops several hundred yards from the ocean surf.

Over the past 30 years, the Lower Rio Grande Valley has experienced explosive growth in just about everything: population, industry, commerce, tourism, and agriculture. It's the center of the NAFTA-driven border economy, the site of Mexico's largest concentration of export-oriented factories -- or maquiladoras. It's also home to many of the fastest growing cities in both countries; the valley's total population has doubled to more than 2.2 million since 1970, and is expected to double again by 2030 as more Mexicans move here from the interior in search of work.

But amidst the growth, planners overlooked an important fact. The valley, geographically speaking, is one step away from being a desert: a hot, dry, subtropical plain where dryland brush competes with prickly cactus for the little water that falls here. Groundwater supplies are brackish and unhealthy. The Rio Grande once made the lower valley an oasis, providing virtually the only source of water for people, crops, industry, and wildlife. But as the border region has grown, the river has not, and people on both banks have a big problem on their hands.

"It's a semi-arid region and the availability of water has always been a constraint on development," says economist Mitchell Mathis, a senior researcher at the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands, Texas who directed a comprehensive international study on the lower Rio Grande basin. "They've run up against a wall in terms of having enough water to satisfy everyone."

Concerns about how unparalleled growth would affect an arid region were shoved under the rug at the NAFTA negotiations.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was negotiated, the governments committed to improving sewage treatment in the region, but water use and supply issues were largely ignored. "The public interest community raised concerns about how unparalleled growth would affect an arid region, but they were just shoved under the rug at the NAFTA negotiations," says Mary E. Kelly, director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies in Austin. "If there's a silver lining to the drought it's that it's brought a sense of urgency to these issues."

One Big Drought

Indeed, the weather is the most immediate problem. Across the Rio Grande's drainage basin it just hasn't been raining. Drought isn't unusual in the here. For many decades the river has run completely dry most summers as it passes through the desert south of El Paso, 800 miles from the Gulf. Normally it would be replenished by the Rio Conchos, which flows into the Rio Grande from the arid ranchlands of Mexico's Chihuahua state. But an eight-year long drought has reduced the Conchos' flow. Meanwhile, farmers, irrigators, and industrial parks clamor for ever-scarcer river water.

As a result, the enormous international reservoirs downstream have fallen to some of their lowest levels since they were constructed four decades ago. Mexico's share of the water in the Amistad and Falcon reservoirs -- the massive artificial lakes that provide water to the farms and cities of the lower valley -- is only 13 percent of the normal conservation level; the U.S. share is less than a third. Water levels at Falcon are so low that Guerrero, a Mexican town submerged when the reservoir was created in 1953, is again high and dry.

There just isn't enough water to go around in the lower valley. By the time it reaches Matamoros, the river level is so low it often falls below the intake pipes that provide water to Mexico's second-fastest growing city, forcing rolling water cut-offs. Farmers on the Texas side of the lower valley estimate the area has lost $400 million annually due to the scarcity of irrigation water. "With the reduced [water] allocations, growers are having to plant fewer and fewer acres," says soil scientist Bob Wiedenfeld of Texas A&M University's agricultural research station in Weslaco, a farming community in the lower valley. "They're comparing this to the great drought of the 1950s here in Texas, and in Mexico it's even worse than that."

Lower valley farmers on both sides of the border blame the Mexican government for the severity of the situation. Under a 1944 treaty, Mexico is required to deliver 350,000 acre feet of Rio Conchos water annually to the Falcon-Amistad reservoirs, two-thirds of which is earmarked for use by downstream Mexicans, one-third for lower valley Texans. The system worked fine back in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was little industry and less than half as many people in the basin. But with the current drought, the treaty mechanism has come unglued. With water in scarce supply, authorities in Chihuahua have refused to release precious water from their smaller reservoirs high up in the Rio Conchos basin. Mexico now owes the lower valley a staggering 1.5 million acre feet of water, more than the current contents of the Falcon and Amistad reservoirs combined.

Mexico argues that the water simply isn't there to give. "We've always said that in the end we will comply with the treaty, but the Mexican government is incapable of making the skies rain," says Mexico's water negotiator Alberto Szekely, a Mexican Foreign Ministry advisor. "We're being accused on both sides of the border of not giving water, when really it is nature that is denying it to us."

The United States disagrees, pointing to the fact that water that should have been released to downstream users was instead allocated to irrigation in Chihuahua, in violation of the 1944 treaty. "There was some water that could have been released and was not," says Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. office of the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso. "Water should be released to meet treaty obligations before it is used for upstream irrigation," she says. Meanwhile, the ecosystem has started showing the wear-and-tear, threatening important industries.

One affected industry is commercial fishing. White shrimp, blue crabs, sea trout and other fish require brackish water to reproduce, and the mouth of the Rio Grande was one of the few places they could find it. "When there's a sand bar there the small shrimp can't get out and the [breeding] shrimp can't get in," says Walter Zimmerman, who owns 23 shrimp trawlers in Port Isabel, Texas. Cameron County marine agents report dramatic reductions in the shrimp, crabs, and other marine species in the lower river.

"We're losing commercial opportunities."

The south Texas coast has become a popular tourist destination, and many come for recreational fishing, but Zimmerman says the Rio Grande's woes are hurting that, too. "If you don't have these nursery areas then you won't have fish and shrimp, so why would people come down here? We're loosing commercial opportunities," he says.

The $100 million ecotourism industry is also threatened. The region is on both major migratory bird flyways and attracts large numbers of bird watchers from across the country. But the birds depend on tiny enclaves of surviving wetland and brush forest habitat that are suffering from a lack of water. "We're putting in less water and more pollutants, which creates a big problem" for aquatic life, says Salvador Contreras, emeritus professor of ichthyology at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico.

An Ever Bigger Challenge

But even if the drought ends, the Lower Rio Grande Valley faces a serious water supply challenge. As the region's population doubles over the coming quarter century, the water supplies reaching the area are likely to shrink. Upstream cities like Monterrey are expected to mushroom as more people move from the interior to work in export-oriented industries. "There will be more and more demands for water," says Mr. Mathis, who directed the Rio Grande basin study. "We're going to have to do a much better job managing the water we have."

When the 1944 water regime was crafted, the population was less than 600,000 and agriculture was the only show in town. Great dams were built, ensuring growers a consistent supply. Over the long-term there appeared to be plenty of water to meet the region's relatively modest needs, and little attention was paid to how it was used. Even today some of south Texas' irrigation flows through open ditches (as opposed to sealed pipes) and most is distributed by simply flooding the fields rather than with sprinklers or drip systems. In Mexico, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of irrigation water is lost to evaporation and leakage in such channels. The solution is for agriculture, which uses more than 80 percent of the lower valley's water, to do more with less.

Mr. Mathis' study showed that just a 10 to 20 percent reduction in irrigation demand would allow the region to meet all its water needs in 2030. That's technically feasible, but will require some innovative thinking. New irrigation systems can reduce leakage, but cost a great deal. Mathis thinks many cities may find that the most cost-effective way to meet rising water demand is to help farmers buy the water-saving technologies in return for the water saved. "That would be a win-win situation, but it's going to be difficult to get cities to come around to the idea."

Water managers on both sides of the border will need to recognize the importance of allocating water for the natural ecosystem. Not only is it important to fishermen and tourism, it's essential to keeping water purification costs down. That's because the Rio Grande also serves as the main wastewater canal for the region's growing cities, and reduced flow means increased concentrations of pollutants, sometimes requiring expensive water treatment before it can be reused. "There may be more economic value to leave the water in the river to maintain quality than there is to release it for irrigation," says Mathis.

But for any of this to work, Mexico will have to stand by its treaty commitments as much as possible. Irrigators in Texas' lower valley have already drawn up a plan to improve efficiency over the next 30 years, but that assumes that Mexico will stand by its treaty commitments. "If we can't rely on the Mexican water," says McAllen, Texas lawyer Glenn Jarvis, chairman of the regional water planning group, "then the [irrigation] shortages would be so great that there aren't any economically-viable means to address them."

Colin Woodard is the author of Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas. He currently lives in Port Isabel, Texas.

The Tabloid Environmentalist

Bjorn Lomborg's new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, brings us glorious news. The world's environment is getting better, not worse. Contrary to what the experts have been telling you, forests are spreading, air and water pollution are improving, global warming will have mild effects, and there won't be any food shortages as the world's population grows. And there's no need to worry about the ozone hole, species extinction, or acid rain; all those pesky environmentalists have just been exaggerating to try to scare you.

If this sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.

The Skeptical Environmentalist presents itself as a work of impartial scholarship, an attempt to test the validity of various environmental concerns through a careful analysis of the evidence. In fact, it's a polemic, an intellectually dishonest tract filled with glaring omissions, appalling errors of fact and analysis, and inaccurate characterizations of contrary arguments. There are some valid points as well -- Greenpeace and other advocacy groups have distorted scientific information for their own ends -- but Lomborg must be read with a very skeptical eye.

Unfortunately, the media reaction has been surprisingly un-skeptical. The book has become a runaway hit on both sides of the Atlantic following a wave of credulous features, book reviews, and Lomborg guest essays published in many of the English-speaking world's most respected newspapers and magazines.

Before the book was even available in the Britain, newspapers were signing its praises. The London Observer's environment correspondent, Anthony Browne, announced it had "demolished almost every ... environmental claim with a barrage of official statistics. "The London Times science correspondent reported Lomborg's global warming claims in a story without other sources. The Economist gave a glowing review and invited Lomborg to write a 2,500 word essay, while the more liberal Guardian published a three-part series. Time International opined that "Of all the sacred cows, only global warming remains unslain" by Lomborg.

The coverage quickly generated a maelstrom of criticism from leading scientists -- including Lomborg's own colleagues at the University of Aarhus. Many of his claims were publicly discredited, but you'd never know that from reading the subsequent coverage in this country. The New York Times carried a sympathetic 2,000 word feature on the book, calling it "a substantial work of analysis." The Washington Post Book World was gushing in its praise, calling it "a magnificent achievement" and "the most significant work on the environment since ... Silent Spring." The Post reviewer, Dennis Dutton, a philosopher in New Zealand who lectures on "the dangers of pseudoscience" even decreed that the book "is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued."

How did the supposedly skeptical media get so taken in? Weren't there clues that should have cast suspicion on Lomborg's motives and analysis? Well, yes and no.

At first glance, Lomborg looks credible. Unlike past anti-green polemicists, Lomborg is a tenured professor at the environmental studies institute of a prestigious university. He's a self-declared "environmentalist ... former Greenpeace member [and] left-wing sympathizer" who doesn't eat meat because he doesn't want to kill animals.

Lomborg isn't an environmental scientist and has never published a scientific paper on climate change, ecology, atmospheric pollution, or any other topic he takes on in his book.

More importantly, his book is published by Cambridge University Press, an academic publisher that supposedly peer reviews manuscripts prior to publication.

"He's a tenured professor at a major university published by an important press," says Bruce Lewenstein, who teaches science communications at Cornell University, after looking over Lomborg's bio. "If someone with some credentials is questioning the conventional wisdom, that's a story."

It may be a story, but it's one that smells fishy from the very first sniff.

Lomborg isn't an environmental scientist and has never published a scientific paper on climate change, ecology, atmospheric pollution, or any other topic he takes on in his book. That's because he's not even a natural scientist, but rather a political scientist with a background in statistics and game theory.

"Here's one guy taking on a whole spectrum of issues who has never written a paper on any of them and is in opposition to absolutely everyone in the field, Nobel prize-winners and all," says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Columbia University who says virtually all of Lomborg's facts on biodiversity are simply wrong. "It ought to have raised some red flags." Political reporters often follow the money; science reporters should follow the data. Those that did discovered that many of the book's 2,500 footnotes led not to hard data, but to newspaper stories, Web pages, and magazine interviews with rival scientists. Some stunning assertions -- that "our oceans have not become defiled" for instance -- aren't substantiated by any research at all.

"He asserts with no analysis that only the mildest [climate change] impacts will happen and that the dangerous ones won't happen," says Stanford University's Stephen H. Schneider, lead author of several chapters of the International Panel on Climate Change's reports. "That the media sucked it up is really incredible."

"Journalists feel they need to give equal emphasis to a single skeptic on one side and, say, the scientific consensus of several thousand of the world's scientists on the other."

Part of the problem is the media's propensity to treat scientific disagreements as they might a political one: quote both sides and let the reader decide on their own. But, as most science writers know, such an approach is entirely inadequate for reporting on science and technology issues. It's important to report on bold, unorthodox theories, because some hold true and lead to new discoveries. But the science journalist has a duty to place them in their proper context: the shared, established opinion of dozens or hundreds of experts in the field does in fact carry more weight than that of a single dissenter.

"Journalists feel they need to give equal emphasis to a single skeptic on one side and, say, the scientific consensus of several thousand of the world's scientists on the other," as in the debate over climate change, says Lisa Sorensen, staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. "This leads readers and viewers to think these opinions have equal weight when, in fact, they do not."

Not everyone sees it this way. Anthony Browne, whose articles in the London Observer first brought attention to the English-language edition of The Skeptical Environmentalist, says most environmental journalists spend most of their time "acting as publicists to those who have a vested interest in scaring people about the state of the environment." He said that when somebody like himself airs the views of skeptics, "those who believe with a passion that we are all doomed heap anger and contempt on them." Browne says journalists shouldn't test "the validity of certain bits of science," but simply judge if someone appears credible and give them an airing to foster debate.

The editor in chief of The Economist, Bill Emmott, stands behind Lomborg's book and denies that it has been given a free ride by the media. "The real problem for the critics is that as far as we can see his data is incontrovertible. That is awkward for those who have made claims in the past that the data flatly contradicts," Emmott says. He said that in all the debate, he had yet to see a critic establish that the book contains "egregious" errors. "He has wiped the floor with his opponents, which is probably why he has created such ire." Grist Magazine has compiled a series of articles from leading scholars that illustrate how wrong Lomborg and Emmott are.

Several scientists interviewed for this article were dumbfounded that with all the scientific and environmental expertise available in the United States, the Washington Post's book review assigned the book to a philosophy professor in New Zealand with no more expertise to assess the arguments than the Post's own science reporters. The reviewer, Dennis Dutton, was chosen because of his "neutrality, remove, record ... and his interest in the environment," according to the paper's Book World editor, Marie Arana. She said that assigning the book had been the subject of an unusually wide-ranging debate, which resulted in a decision not to assign the book within the newsroom.

Dutton, whose popular Arts and Letters Web site includes a paean to the late environmental skeptic Julian Simon in its list of classic articles, declined to comment for this article. "It is the accuracy or inaccuracy of the book that is at issue, as far as I am concerned," he wrote by e-mail. "If you think the book is factually wrong, and if reviewers have been misled, I'd be keen to learn how."

But many of Lomborg's most troubling deceptions don't require scientific training to detect, and should have been obvious to any editor with even a passing interest in the environmental debate. Much of the book is deliberately misleading. Lomborg devotes entire chapters to "revealing" that we are not running out of oil or metals, although virtually nobody in the environmental movement has claimed otherwise in the past twenty years. He also marshals statistics to prove that human life expectancy and the global Gross Domestic Product have improved over the past two centuries and that the green revolution increased agricultural production, as if anyone is arguing the contrary. Lomborg shows the Kyoto agreement will have only a slight impact on global warming, apparently unaware that the treaty is indeed conceived as a "down payment" on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Much of the media -- conservative and liberal alike -- were duped by the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press, whose reputation has been damaged by the publication of Lomborg's book.

Conservatives love Lomborg's message because it suggests that the status quo is pretty good. The Cooler Heads Coalition -- a group spearheaded by the Competitive Enterprise Institute which seeks to "dispel the myths of global warming" -- helped kick-off The Skeptical Environmentalist's U.S. release by sponsoring Lomborg's very own Capitol Hill briefing on October 4th. Not surprisingly, conservative columnists have heaped praise on the book. Katherine Kersten, senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, told her Minneapolis Star-Tribune readers not to be taken in by "environmental fearmongering" and that "celebration, not despair, is in order." Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune questioned how environmentalists have "resisted the impulse to carry Lomborg off on their shoulders, wildly celebrating all the achievements of our era." The reason: environmentalists take "a solemn vow of melancholy."

Asked about how he assessed Lomborg's work, Chapman said that he didn't pretend to be a scientist and might change his opinion of the book if it were shown to be fraudulent. "All a layman like myself can do is try to learn about a subject by listening to what scientists on either side say and make a judgment of who is right," he said. "We do the same thing with non-scientists like economists and military people, whose knowledge is far deeper than our own."

Much of the media -- conservative and liberal alike -- were duped by the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press, whose reputation has been damaged by the publication of Lomborg's book. "Despite the sales that have been generated, CUP's credibility and reputation will suffer," says Jane Lubchenco, distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Many of us have inquired of our Cambridge contacts how they could have published a book that so clearly could never have passed peer review."

The book was acquired by CUP's social science group, rather than its natural science division. Editor Chris Harrison declined to comment on rumors that natural science editors had been kept in the dark about the book until a very late date. He said by e-mail that he had been very skeptical about the book when it first landed on his desk, and was surprised when all four of the scientific "referees" who reviewed the English manuscript recommended it for publication. He said referees always remain anonymous, but that all four were "senior figures … from leading departments on both sides of the Atlantic" and included two from "environmental science departments, one from climate science, and one from a social science department."

Harrison said he had no regrets about publishing the book and that Cambridge University Press prided itself on publishing a variety of voices. "The book has been noticed and debated and that is surely a valuable contribution to public and academic debate in an open society," he said, adding that he himself was a "green tinted liberal" and not part of some conservative agenda.

Others dispute that The Skeptical Environmentalist's contribution will be positive.

"This book is going to be misused terribly by interests opposed to a clean energy policy," says Ms. Sorensen of Union of Concerned Scientists, whose organization is publishing a series of scientific critiques of Lomborg's science. "Hopefully that will help counter the claims and minimize the damage that could be done by a book like this."

Grist also commissioned a series of reviews, "Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark", by prominent scientists from the fields that Lomborg tackled in his book.

Colin Woodard is the author of "Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas." He currently lives in Port Isabel, Texas.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.