EDITORS NOTE: Drought has bedeviled South Texas farms, ranches and citrus groves relentlessly for the past few years, taking significant chunks out of local economies, threatening industries, municipalities and residents of the Lower Rio Grande valley. Complicating the issue has been a disagreement over Mexico’s obligation to deliver water to the region as mandated by a 1944 water treaty. Following is the final segment in a three-part series discussing the drought, the treaty and the ramifications for both sides of the border

 

Water is eternal. It was here before first man or woman, who themselves, as you and I, were largely made of it. About water it has been said that nothing is softer or more flexible, yet nothing can resist it.

On the other hand, W.C. Fields summed it up this way, "You can't trust water, even a stick turns crooked in it."

Regardless of your take on the issue or how you choose to define it, the truth is, even with breath and bread, one can not survive without water. Courts have been hearing and trying to decide water issues since the earliest of times; wars have been waged because of it. It is fair to say that when it comes to H2O, as Ben Franklin aptly put it, when the well runs dry, we know the worth of water.

It is the “worth of water” that has become a real question in these long months of drought. From Mission to Brownsville, Texas, community leaders, politicians, civil servants, farmers, ranchers and residents are watching the days roll off the calendar and still no resolution has been found for a growing water shortage. Seasonal tropical weather may bring needed showers, but as time wears on and water resources deplete, some are asking tough questions and making bold statements about water they say is owed to South Texas but is being withheld unfairly.

“Enough is enough,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said last week. “When two countries sign a treaty, compliance with the treaty’s terms should not be a point of negotiation decades later."

In a concerted effort to acquire much-needed water for South Texas, Staples and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein released a call-to-action report last week, titled “Addressing Mexico’s Water Deficit to the United States,” detailing specific actions the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) should take to compel Mexico to deliver Rio Grande water owed to Texas.

According to the 69-year old water treaty between the two countries, Mexico must release water from the Rio Conchos in exchange for water released from the Pecos River basin by the United States. To be specific, Mexico is required to release 1.75 million acre-feet of water to the U.S. over a five-year cycle. But many Texas and U.S. lawmakers say the treaty calls for the release of a minimum of 350,000 acre feet of water each year of the five-year cycle, an argument questioned by the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC), the bi-national agency responsible for maintaining and policing terms of the water treaty.

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So far, Mexico has released an estimated 420,000 acre-feet of water in the current cycle, which began in Oct. of 2010 and ends in Oct. of 2015. U.S. and Texas officials point out that the five-year cycle is about half way through, and Mexico, they say, has released less than 25 percent of its total five-year water obligation.

In spite of the claims, IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener in El Paso says Mexico would only fail to be in compliance with treaty guidelines if it fails to deliver the required amount of water over the five-year period. She says the issue is difficult to define, and suggests there may be differing opinions on both sides of the border. IBWC officials say they do not have the authority or ability to force the issue.

Lawmakers and leaders on this side of the border, however, are taking the position that annual minimum releases are required to conform to terms of the treaty, and some believe IBWC is not doing enough to resolve the problem.

Dire warning

"This report provides a dire warning on the devastating impact Mexico’s water deficit is having on the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It is clear proof that agriculture, businesses and residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are suffering, and the IBWC has tools to compel Mexico to fulfill its obligations before the water debt becomes unmanageable," Staples said in the release.

"I remind everyone that this is not a debate between two countries over how to share water—that debate happened decades ago and resulted in a treaty. This is about getting Mexico to live by the treaty, just like the U.S.”

The TDA/TCEQ report, co-authored by Commissioner Staples and Commissioner Rubinstein, details specific actions the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) should take to compel Mexico to deliver Rio Grande water owed to Texas.

It further makes specific recommendations, such as modifying Mexico’s internal and international reservoir operation plan to release water from upstream reservoirs that are above normal capacity; not allowing Mexico’s water deficit to grow beyond current levels; and implementing treaty provisions to allow for more flexibility in water delivery and apportioning.

Recommendations in the report also acknowledge accounting for water that flows at Fort Quitman and water salinity issues created by Mexico, and challenges the IBWC to take a stronger and more proactive management role in stopping what the report calls illegal diversions of Texas water by Mexico.

It may be the strongest words yet issued over growing concerns that the South Texas economy could be on the edge of a very steep cliff. Without water, it is anything but business as usual.

Staples referred to last week's Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service's economic analysis that estimated the lack of irrigation water has cost $229.2 million in South Texas crop revenue losses already this year and will ultimately contribute to an estimated $394.9 million loss in economic output for the region.

“Without irrigation water, whether by drought, an unpaid Mexican water debt or a combination of both, the economic cost is very high for this region,” said Dr. Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

He says the analysis may actually be conservative in terms of total losses because it does not include losses that occur beyond farm level sales, "such as transportation, storage, processing, packaging and marketing.”

According to Staples, the impact of Mexico’s ongoing water deficit will be substantial for farmers and residents in South Texas this year. Already, he says at least 10 cities in the Valley have been notified that if conditions persist they will run out of water by August.

“AgriLife’s analysis verifies our fears and provides concrete evidence of the magnitude of the effects that Mexico’s non-compliance with the 1944 Treaty has on agricultural interests in the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” Rubinstein added. “The analysis clearly highlights the tremendous impact this water has on the U.S. economy."

The other side of the coin

Deep into the growing regions of Northern Mexico, farmers in Tamaulipas and Coahuila claim they also need more water, and they take it from the Rio Conchos watershed in Chihuahua to sustain their crops and livestock. The river is the primary recharge mechanism in northern Mexico for the Rio Grande. But as Mexican farmers irrigate their crops, the levels of the river drop accordingly, and less water recharges the basin.

In sun-drenched Chihuahua, the drought has had a severe economic impact on livestock producers as cattle production is down drastically and, just like their U.S. counterparts, stockmen have culled herds and suffered losses in an effort to survive the drought.

On top of that, some Mexican leaders say they, too, have gripes about treaty noncompliance—the quality and lack of water in the Colorado River specifically, which flows across the U.S. - Mexico border between Arizona and California. The long standing 1944 Treaty between the two countries also provides provisions on how the waters of the Colorado are to be divided.

Those disputes, however, are of little consolation to South Texas farmers, ranchers and communities who are facing significant losses that threaten their livelihood. The thought of Mexico's water woes rarely cross their minds, for they are far too busy wondering where they will get water next for South Texas residents, for border businesses, and for families and farms.

One day, some say, the clouds will gather and the heavens will open with steady, beneficial rain for the Southwest and Mexico, bringing relief and new life to agriculture and industry while washing away the drought-induced lines in the sand that have been drawn.

Until then it may be good to remember that the situation can be fueled even more in the days and weeks ahead depending on the intensity of the ongoing drought. As difficult as it is to maintain though, a little patience might go a long way toward survival -- until the weather forecast changes.

 

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Part 2: South Texas water crisis is drawing a line in the sand

The water that divides us: Part I

Dry South Texas agriculture would cost $400 million, 5,000 jobs