No, really the checks are in the mail. As a matter of fact 1,862 checks, representing a total of about $10 million, have been mailed from the Texas Department of Agriculture to Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers who applied for and were certified to receive funds approved by the U.S. Congress to help offset some of the 2001 losses created by insufficient irrigation water.

Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs says Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison secured the aid package for farmers who were hammered by drought and decreases in irrigation allocations due to Mexico’s noncompliance with the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty.

And more may be on the way. The U.S. Senate recently approved an additional $10 million federal grant to aid Rio Grande Valley farmers for 2002 losses resulting from the Mexican water debt. The U.S. House must pass the bill as well.

Hutchison proposed this latest grant as well and had the funds included in the $391 billion spending bill passed by the U.S. Senate. The funds are in addition to the $10 million currently on its way to South Texas farmers.

“I am grateful for Sen. Hutchison’s continued hard work on behalf of South Texas farmers who have been severely impacted by Mexico’s refusal to pay the water owed,” Combs said. “This funding, if passed by the House, will be a much-needed boost to farmers and will help recover some of the losses they incurred during the 2002 crop year.”

“Agricultural production and its allied industries are the economic engines of South Texas,” Hutchison said. “I could not stand by and allow our farmers and ranchers to suffer because an international treaty is not being met.”

Aid for 2001 was distributed by dividing the $10 million in federal funds by eligible and approved irrigated acreage.

A total of 455,388 acres were eligible. Farmers will receive $21.77 for each affected acre. “Although, this amount does not even come close to covering actual losses, estimated to be $259 per acre in 2001, the assistance should offset some farmers’ losses,” Combs said.

She expressed appreciation to Hutchinson and to Texas state legislators for helping secure the funds. She said Sen. Eddie Lucio, Brownsville, convened a special hearing of the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Border Affairs in November to examine actions Texas could take in light of the treaty’s failure.

Local irrigation districts, Rio Grande Watermaster offices, Farm Service Agency and Texas Cooperative Extension offices also helped farmers apply for the aid, Combs said.

Most of the funds, more than $8 million, will go to Cameron and Hidalgo counties for 376,431 affected acres.

Farmers in Cameron, Hidalgo, Kinney, Maverick, Starr, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy and Zapata counties were eligible to apply for funds if they had acreage eligible for water allocations for agricultural use in the Rio Grande Watermaster system through individual irrigation water rights or through a water irrigation district during the 2001 crop year.

Combs said Mexico’s 1.5 million acre-feet water debt has caused an estimated $1 billion loss to the Lower Rio Grande Valley economy during the past 10 years, according to a Texas A&M University study.

Mexico agreed in February to deliver 350,000 acre-feet of water to the Rio Grande by Sept. 30, with an additional 50,000 acre-feet if weather conditions permit. Mexico also agreed to pay 200,000 acre-feet by the end of January.

That’s encouraging but far off the mark of what Rio Grande Valley farmers need to meet production demands, Combs said. “They need a minimum of 600,000 acre-feet of water by the end of February,” Combs said. Also, the repayment amounts do not take into account conveyance and evaporative losses.

Combs and other Texas officials contended that Mexico could pay more water because it has almost 3.2 million acre-feet of water in storage in border-area reservoirs.

“The agreed payment is only 23 percent of the 1.5 million acre-feet Mexico owes and amounts to only 11 percent of the water Mexico has in storage and could deliver to our struggling farmers,” Combs said.

Another water shortfall could be devastating to Lower Rio Grande farmers. Last year, cotton and grain production dropped substantially, largely due to Mexico’s failure to deliver the required water. Grain sorghum production was down 29 percent; cotton production dropped 40 percent.

Most of the Valley’s corn farmers depend on irrigation, so they planted no corn in 2002. That’s down from 54,000 acres in 2001.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com