South Texas' water problems cannot be addressed without considering the 1.3 million acre feet Mexico owes the United States according to a 1944 water treaty between the two countries.

So it was good news when Mexico announced recently it would release 600,000 acre-feet to the United States by the end of July. But is it a drop in the bucket or the beginning of full repayment? At this point, nobody knows.

Everyone agrees that it's a step in the right direction, a step resulting directly from efforts of south Texas farmers, the International Boundary and Water Commission, a large number of state officials, including border congressmen from Brownsville to El Paso, Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Governor Rick Perry. And “the essential impetus for bringing this matter to a head was the personal involvement of President Bush in pressing the issue with President Fox,” says Ray Prewett, executive vice president of Texas Citrus Mutual.

Prewett, at a recent Cotton Planting Seminar in Weslaco, noted that getting Mexico to pay back the water “has more to do with politics and diplomacy than it has to do with anything.” This is an issue that could cause a serious dispute between two nations that want to stay on good terms.

It is the ambiguity of the treaty that has caused foot-dragging on the part of both countries. Starting in the 1992-97-time period, Mexico's debt had built up to 1.024 million acre-feet. According to the treaty, under normal circumstances Mexico would not be permitted to have any debt at the end of the first five year period, which came in October 1987; however, there is room for differing opinions about when the water has to be delivered if Mexico is in a “severe drought,” a phrase not defined in the treaty.

By the end of the second cycle, in October 2002, the treaty specifies that all debts must be paid under any circumstances.

Jo Jo White, general manager of Hidalgo and Cameron Counties Irrigation District NO. 9, greets the announcement that Mexico has begun fulfilling its promise with only guarded optimism.

“All new increases to our supply are urgently needed and will be used for beneficial purposes,” he says. “In reality, the 600,000 acre-feet water payment does very little in regard to reducing the existing deficit.”

According to the treaty, Mexico must repay the previous five-year cycle deficit during the current five-year cycle along with any water necessary to prevent a deficiency in this cycle.

White explains that the 1944 treaty is the only viable source that generates our major water resources. Mexico, in turn, benefits from the same treaty by receiving its water resources from the Colorado River as it enters northwestern Mexico, an obligation the United States has never failed to honor.

“Though greatly needed and appreciated,” White says, “the 600,000-acre feet commitment falls far short in addressing the outstanding deficit. After receiving and crediting the balance of the 600,000 acre feet at the end of July, Mexico will have only 14 months to provide 1.5 million acre-feet to prevent a treaty violation.

“As one can readily see, much stronger actions are needed to force an aggressive repayment schedule.”

He urges every resident in the region to contact various power positions in Washington to begin new efforts in addressing the deficit dilemma.

“Time is of the utmost importance — failure to force new commitments from Mexico will result in a disastrous scenario for the Rio Grande Valley's future water needs.”