North American Free Trade Agreement's environmental panel will bypass a study of how expansion of a military base in Arizona is affecting water tables and instead research the broader issue of the future water supply along the Arizona-Mexico border.
The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, frequently known as the Nafta environment panel, announced that it would examine water problems in the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area - an important resting area for migratory birds.''The issue really has to do with the use of water and the fact that this reserve, which is considered by the three countries a very important natural reserve for migratory birds, is seemingly having problems with water in a region where there is a scarcity of water and we have to understand what the policies are for water,'' Victor Lichtinger, head of the commission, said by telephone from Montreal.
The decision is significant because it staves off a potential row with Washington at a time when President Clinton is seeking to persuade Republican lawmakers that future trade pacts should include labor and environmental accords like the Nafta had.
''It is a case that is important in itself, but at the same time might give us a multiplier effect in how to deal with the problem of water,'' Mr. Lichtinger said, noting its relevance for the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
''Water will become an issue of national security for both countries.''
The Southwest Center for Biological Diversity claimed in January that the expansion of the Fort Huachuca Army base near Tucson threatened water supplies and drained the local ecosystem.
The group sought an investigation that would have focused on the narrower question of compliance with U.S. environmental laws. But in a compromise it apparently supported the broader study into water issues, said Mr. Lichtinger.
The Environmental Protection Agency had responded to the January complaint by noting most of the questions about compliance with environmental rules predated the Nafta commission and therefore were not subject to question.