Rubinstein said with the fall rains, the reservoirs should be at 49.5 percent capacity in a short time. “We have to go back to 1994 to find that much water here.” Farmers have a right to be optimistic. Last year at this time the reservoirs were only at 28.8 percent capacity.

Besides the rain, conveyance losses out of the Falcon Reservoir have been lower, and aquatic weeds that restrict the flow have been less of a problem than in the past.

With all this good news, Rubinstein, too, is optimistic, at least for the short run. He said irrigation districts were supposed to receive an allocation of 370,000 acre-feet of water in November. “Although we do not know the weather pattern in the future, farmers should be OK this year.”

But does South Texas have enough water? Hardly. “We need the reservoirs to be at 65 percent to give everyone the flexibility they want.”

The Rio Grande Valley is living from year to year. Gordon Hill, manager of Bayview Irrigation District, stressed the need for planning, citing projections that show the Valley’s population will double in 50 years. This would strain water resources to the breaking point, without conservation.

The big question is how to get projects accomplished. Reusing wastewater, desalination treatment for ground water, improving conveyance infrastructure as well as on-farm improvements don’t come cheap.

“Show me the money,” said Wayne Halbert, manager of the Harlingen Irrigation District. Halbert has been working on grants for water conservation projects. Several districts have been authorized a share of $78 million.

“Authorization is the easy part,” he said. “So far, three districts have actually received $1.5 million."

A positive development has been $25 million of federal funds for improvements to the conveyance systems in the eight-county area. But this is a small amount when experts estimate the cost of necessary improvements could run as high as $450 million. “When you’re talking about agricultural water, there is (significant) potential for savings if we could afford it,” said Halbert.

Tito Nieto of the United Irrigation District said rehabilitation projects, which include canal and pipeline improvements, have been responsible for less water loss in his district, down from 25 percent to 15 percent. District employees, with “in-house dollars,” did all improvements. “The more money put in the ground, the less water loss.”

Andy Slovak, representing the Brownsville Irrigation District, noted that in 1968 his district started replacing irrigation canals with underground pipelines – a project that took 10 years. In 1995, they initiated a conservation plan that included metering all irrigated fields and getting farmers to use soil and moisture sensors to help determine when to irrigate. The project has reduced farm level water usage dramatically.

Troy Allen of Delta Lake Irrigation District praised metering, which became mandatory in 1999. “It made farmers conserve water and opened the district’s eyes to how much water farmers use.” He estimated a 10 percent to 15 percent savings as a direct result of metering.

The Rio Grande Valley has to be serious about water conservation projects. The water Mexico owes the United States doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Jo Jo White, Mercedes Irrigation District Manager, summed it up. “If you’ve got any ideas on how we can get Mexico to repay us, let me know.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com