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South of Disorder

Have environmentalists and George W. Bush stopped the Intracoastal Waterway?

April 1, 2001
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Playa Meziquital, 50 miles south of the Texas border, on a busy afternoon: Pigs wander the salt flats on the northern edge of the Laguna Madre rooting for delicacies behind shotgun shacks. Fishermen behead mullet under a palapa. On the edge of the village, a gutted television sits impaled on a fence post, incongruous as a moon buggy marooned in the Sea of Tranquility. Out of place and out of time, I’m an astronaut who has stepped out onto the dark side of the moon. From my perch on a makeshift barstool beside a shack selling 80-cent Coronas, I’m watching this Mexican lagoon’s placid waters fade southward between sand dunes and salt flats, a primordial fish nursery richer in its way than a coral reef. The town is a hellhole, and there isn’t another recreational boat in sight. It’s all mine.

If the rumors are true, this ratty fishing village may soon be the gateway to a 256-mile, protected inside route south along the Gulf of Mexico. Ever since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) back in 1993, there’s been talk of a Mexican Intracoastal Waterway-one that would connect with our own ICW that starts in Norfolk, Virginia, and edges the continent for 2,966 miles before ending at the Brownsville shipping channel in Texas. As originally conceived back in 1808, the ICW was going to extend down the Gulf Coast through El Mezquital south to Veracruz. But dreams get deferred down here, and the Mexican border is a line in the sand where the waterway screeches to a halt like a squeamish tourist.

Now NAFTA, even though it relates primarily to land-based trade, has revived the dream of a transborder waterway. Over the years, adventurous cruisers have put in to these lonely harbors, but few stay-or come back. The support systems are iffy: Marinas and fuel are spread out too far, and charts are virtually nonexistent. But these restless souls all tell stories of incredible fishing and of untouched bays and beaches. A potential paradise. And one that may be made accessible to us, that is if the environmentalists and politicians don’t kill it first.

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THE ROUTE SOUTH

To bust through the rumors and half-truths, we headed south. A big cruiser was out of the question-too many shallow, unmarked waters. So we trailered in with a boat better suited to thin-water exploration. Nationally, Blue Wave (800/432-6768) isn’t a big name. But down on the Texas coast, it’s known as a builder of tough skinny-water demons. We went with what the locals use: a 189 Classic packing a 150-hp Yamaha V-Max. Speed, in this case over 50 mph, was as important as shoal water ability. Customs officials had warned us of smugglers, so the ability to make a hasty retreat might be a lifesaver.

Our tow vehicle was a Ford E-31 HD Club Wagon with an OEM conversion to four-wheel drive. We wanted a van so we could haul our gear and have a place to sleep, as there aren’t many Holiday Inns in this part of the world. Four-wheel drive was a must, too. No one knew if we could even expect roads where we were going, and we planned to use beaches to launch the boat. With its 265-hp V-10 engine and 10,000-pound towing capacity, power wasn’t going to be a problem.

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Rigged and ready, and after what seemed like B-movie scenes of dealing with Mexican officials, we crossed the border to pick up Route 101 out of Matamoros. This highway conveys plenty of flashy bassboats to Lake Guerrero, better known as Big Bass Lake. It’s also the road we took to Ciudad Victoria, the capital of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, to check on the status of the Mexican Intracoastal. Gringos have been towing their boats along this road for decades without ever touching the Laguna Madre, one of the few hyper-saline lagoons in the world, just a few miles to the east.

“It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever fished,” says Jim Juhl, owner of a hunting lodge near the village of La Pesca at the southern end of the lagoon, 250 miles into Mexico. Juhl says the area around La Pesca has been pretty much fished out. But 30 miles north there’s a fish camp called Ramada near a newly created inlet (N24º 16′ 35″; W97º 42′ 44″) where “the water is absolutely picture perfect for fishing,” Juhl reports. Juhl, like many sportsmen before him, believes that dredging a channel through the lagoon would open it up to fishermen and eco-tourists. “The Texas Intracoastal Waterway made Texas a hunting and fishing paradise,” he argues. Why not do the same in Mexico?

SWEET DREAMS

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Why not indeed? Ten years ago it seemed tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. Then-Governor Manuel Cavazos Lerma of Tamaulipas was the head cheerleader for the Tamaulipan Intracoastal Waterway (TIWW), which was to run from Tampico to El Mezquital. The remaining 50-mile stretch meant to join up with the Brownsville ship channel in Texas was still up for grabs. The whole project was to be built primarily with private, rather than government, money. NAFTA and free trade were the background music. Bids were solicited, and the biggest dredging company in the world, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, was awarded the contract, worth about $750 million. Digging was supposed to commence in the spring of 1996. It didn’t happen.

“It was the project of a lifetime for everybody involved,” recalls Bill Hanson, manager of Latin America and the Caribbean Projects for Great Lakes Dredge and Dock. “We called it el canal de los suenos-the canal of dreams.” It was going to be the biggest privately funded waterway ever built.

And that was part of the problem-who was going to own and operate the waterway? Private investors could own jurisdiction over sections for which they could charge tolls. The accounting firm of Arthur Andersen did a study that found there would be enough cargo in both directions to support the canal. But Mexican shippers, who are oriented toward deeper-draft cargo vessels, saw it more as a threat to their supremacy than a boon and never got behind it. And Texas ports also saw it as potential competition. Apart from the business threats, environmentalists questioned the massive dredging operation, which has been linked to the loss of seagrass beds in Texas. Ultimately, the Mexican company that was supposed to raise the money never made much progress. “In the end, it was the environmental issues that killed it,” says Hanson. “Nobody wants to invest in a controversial project.”

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DITCHED

The TIWW may be dead in the water right now, but it’s way too soon for last rites. It took 141 years to complete construction of the American Intracoastal, so if we use that as a template, this is just a temporary hiatus. Still, the opposition is pretty stiff. Shutting off the boating spigot at the Texas border is fine by the U.S. Coast Guard, whose southernmost station, eight miles from the border at South Padre Island, is one of the most active drug and migrant interdiction units in the country. “A Mexican Intracoastal would make contraband transport that much easier,” deadpans Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Brandon Slater, showing us a Mexican skiff recently found stuffed with cocaine.

Then there was Texas Governor, now President, George W. Bush, whose letter torpedoed Governor Cavazos Lerma’s in-box on July 17, 1997. Bush, whose reputation among environmentalists ranks somewhere between James Watt and the Army Corps of Engineers, managed to sound like Rachel Carson. “The project raises serious environmental issues that have yet to be fully studied by U.S. state and federal agencies. The channel cut into the Rio Grande and could have impacts on water flows through the river’s delta,” the letter read.

Although his language was obtuse, his real objective was not: aiding Texas stevedores, towing companies, and labor unions that wanted to keep Mexican vessels from carrying goods north. His objection for the record, stated clearly, was indisputable: “Furthermore, increased traffic on the southern portion of the Texas intracoastal waterway could accelerate maintenance dredging cycles through the very sensitive Laguna Madre, which would have financial as well as environmental impacts for our state.”

Texans have been wrangling over their own Laguna Madre, south of Corpus Christi, since the upper and lower portions of the lagoon were linked by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in 1949. All portions of the Laguna Madre are hypersaline, as high as 10 times the salinity of seawater. When the upper and lower lagoons were joined, the salt levels lowered. Between the changing salinity, agricultural runoff, and constant dredging, Texas’ Laguna Madre has suffered a 30 percent loss of life-nurturing seagrass beds in the last 40 years. Environmentalists have been trying to shut down the dredging in the lower Laguna Madre, where dwindling barge traffic carries mostly gasoline south to Brownsville.

Still, the same Texas government has surveys showing that about 80 percent of all recreational boat trips in Texas involve some portion of the waterway, and sportfishing in the Laguna Madre thrives. It’s painful to see all this great boating stop cold at the border when there is so much more beckoning us southward.

DONDE ESTA EL ICW?

So does all this mean there’s no hope? In Ciudad Victoria, I put that very question to Ernesto Morris Delgado, the state director of infrastructure in charge of ports and waterways. Governor Lerma Cavazos is out of office now, and the new governor, Tomas Yarrington, hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for the waterway. Surprisingly, Delgado claims the TIWW is moving forward, albeit gingerly. “There’s a channel from Tampico to Tuxpan,” he says, tracing his finger up a map of Mexico’s Gulf Coast. “It was built 40 years ago by the Aguila Co., from England, to move petroleum. It’s used mostly by fishing boats now. So we have a start on the canal.”

Delgado explains that Tamaulipas has an expanding gravel market, due to the building boom on both sides of the border. The greatest expense in bringing gravel to market is its transport. Transporting it by barge is much cheaper than by truck or train, and barges are now being built at El Mezquital to carry tons of it north to Brownsville. “We need additional ports to complement Tampico,” says Delgado. “We’re developing ports first, about every 60 miles down the coast, and that may stimulate the canal.”

Studies are now underway in Tamaulipas, according to Delgado, looking at how to bring tourists and boaters into El Mezquital and other small ports to the south. “In western Mexico, like Mazatlan and along the Pacific Coast, they have built facilities for boats. We want to do that here now,” he declares. “Boaters and birders will be interested in the islands in the lagoon.” Delgado realizes that some people cruise the coast and have to go all the way down to Veracruz for modern facilities. “But Veracruz is so far. We want to build stair steps-escaleras-down the coast. And when building a staircase, what is the most important step? The first one: El Mezquital.”

From my barstool pedestal in El Mezquital, the empty lagoon and salt flats beg to be explored. Yet, even after too many Coronas, this nascent port’s hard poverty can turn you away. There’s fuel at the modern Pemex station as well as a school and churches. But a squad of black-clad Federales with heavy rifles patrols along the shore, and a white line of breakers bars the unmarked inlet. The idea of crossing in from the Gulf isn’t appealing no matter how many cervezas you have in you.

Climbing to the top of a sand dune, the view to the north opens into an endless wilderness of undulating sand, tumbling breakers, and windy solitude. To the south, the Laguna Madre reflects the silvery mackerel sky. I try to picture a canal running through it. I’m still trying.

HOW TO MAKE THE IMPASSIBLE POSSIBLE

You can order your new 3/4- or 1-ton Ford or GM van equipped with four-wheel drive right at the showroom. All you have to do is tell the salesperson to add a Quigley conversion. Your van is shipped from the builder to Quigley’s Manchester, Pennsylvania, plant. The 4×4 conversion adds about 30 days to the final delivery. The additional cost was $7,995 for our Ford E-31 and, as with all Quigley conversions, came with a 36-month/36,000-mile warranty.

Quigley mounts a Dana front-drive axle, upgrades the suspension, reinforces the frame, adds a Borg Warner transfer case, and inserts manual or self-locking hubs. Other than its increased height, the front hubs, and discrete logo, it looks like any other van.

The conversion is a sensible alternative to an SUV. Our Ford had more room (seating for 12 or 300 cubic feet of cargo) than any sport ute. Plus, it puts you higher up and has massive grunt with its V-10 power option. The only thing holding a van back in extreme terrain is its longer wheelbase. But for off-road, third-world exploring where beaches are the boat ramps and paved roads don’t exist, this is the tow vehicle of choice. For more information, contact: Quigley Motor Co. Inc., 800/233-9358, www.quigley4x4.com. ****

TOWING A BOAT INTO MEXICO

It’s no big deal to tow your boat south of the border-as long as all your papers are in order. Which can lead to a whole different story. Getting legal isn’t difficult, but Mexican bureaucracy can be cranky. Best advice: Follow Mexican laws to the letter, and once across the border, treat all the documents as you would your passport. If they’re stolen or lost, getting your rig out of Mexico will become a big deal. Here’s what you need.

  • MEXICAN BOAT PERMIT. If you’re carrying any fishing gear, you must have a boat permit. No fishing gear, no permit required. Only one office in the United States issues Mexican boat permits: the Secretaria de Pesca in San Diego (619/233-6956). Everything can be handled by mail and fax, and a permit is good for one year from date of purchase. Boats under 23′ cost $31.
  • MEXICAN FISHING LICENSE. You get this from the fisheries secretary in San Diego, too. If you’re carrying fishing gear, every passenger must have a $40 fishing license, whether fishing or not.
  • TOURIST CARD. Get these wherever you buy Mexican auto and boat insurance. The tourist card must be stamped at the border when you enter Mexico.
  • AUTOMOBILE IMPORT PERMIT. A new requirement, designed to make sure you don’t sell your vehicle in Mexico. At the Mexican immigration offices at the border, you must present a valid registration for the vehicle and your credit card. An imprint is taken of the card, and a permit is glued to your windshield. Upon your return, the permit is removed and your credit card voucher destroyed. If you haven’t crossed the border northward with your car in six months, Mexican authorities charge at least $5,000 to your credit card.
  • INSURANCE. Most Mexican insurance agencies near the border sell both car and boat insurance. It is illegal (and insane) to drive in Mexico without insurance. American insurance coverage of your boat is not recognized in Mexico. Pay $35 for a membership in the Vagabundos del Mar Boat and Travel Club (800/474-2252), which takes care of all your insurance and permits and sends you a travel packet with your documents ready to go.
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