Like a surveillance camera recording evidence of an armed robbery in progress at the corner 7 Eleven, satellite imagery shows that Mexico not only has adequate water reserves to make a partial payment on its 1.5 million acre-feet water debt, but water bandits also have installed pipes along the Rio Grande and make illegal withdrawals.

Satellite photos show the Mexican state of Chihuahua received more than its normal total June average rainfall in two separate weather events (June 5 and 6 and June 11 and 12), which reduced the amount of irrigation water the state needs from reservoirs.

Mexico's recent promise to release 90,000 acre-feet of water from Falcon Reservoir to Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers serves as a noble gesture but adds barely a trickle to a region that's suffered drought conditions for most of the last decade.

It's not like Mexico can hide pilfered water the way street punks slip rolls of stolen cash under their car seats. Big brother is watching and recording where water comes from and where it goes. It's not that complicated anymore, says Gordon Wells, research associate at the University of Texas Center for Space Research, Austin.

Wells prepares weekly reports for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as they try to force Mexico to honor a 1944 treaty. Currently, Mexico is 1.5 million acre-feet in arrears and has not paid its annual 350,000 acre-feet installment since 1992.

Wells collects evidence from wavelength data and near-infrared photography that show reservoir water levels and vegetation. “We can review imagery from several months back and determine when illegal water withdrawals from the Rio Grande began,” he says. “We can also show, by flushes of vegetation and soil temperature, where it went.”

He says the technology allows analysts to determine when a specific field is irrigated, even if the land is bare. “We can determine soil moisture and temperature variations.”

Satellite data show “significant differences in irrigation use between Mexico and the Lower Rio Grande Valley in south Texas,” Wells says.

Between drought and dry place

Prolonged drought, combined with declining water levels in two Rio Grande reservoirs, Amistad and Falcon, and Mexico's failure to live up to its treaty obligations put Texas' farmers between a drought and a dry place.

“The Rio Grande, into the Big Bend region, is at historical lows,” Wells says, “lower than in the prolonged drought of the 1950s. Cattle can walk across the river.”

But Chihuahua has been blessed with abundant rainfall this summer, according to satellite imagery and Doppler radar. By early July the state had received “above the average rainfall for that time of year. And most rain typically falls in July and August,” Wells says.

Recent rains, plus the amount of water stored in Mexican reservoirs, should provide adequate reserves to repay a good portion of the water debt.

Commissioner Combs doesn't mince words about the failure of Mexico to honor the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty.

“They're stealing our water,” she says.

“Those satellite images are a smoking gun. They show daily what's going on even though Mexico says there is not enough water to repay the debt. Satellite surveillance shows where the water is, when it's drawn down and where it goes.”

Combs portrays Chihuahua as a “renegade state” and the chief culprit in the Mexican government's 10-year failure to provide the 350,000 acre-feet annual obligation to the United States.

“Chihuahua is ripping off Texas as well as Mexican states downstream,” Combs says. “They (Mexican farmers downstream) are also getting stiffed.”

Combs points out that U.S. treaty compliance has been unwavering. “We've always lived up to our obligations,” she says. “We give them four times what they give us.”

Compliance next year may be in doubt, however. “Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico have been dry this spring, and there was little snow melt, so we may not have the water to give Mexico next year,” Combs says.

Wells says the 1.5 million acre-feet the United States sends south to the Baja area comes out of Lake Meade.

Meanwhile, Combs says the U.S. media continues to stand up for Mexican farmers while ignoring South Texas producers and businessmen who have incurred devastating losses because of treaty violations.

Human tragedies

“Mexico's failure to provide their annual 350,000 acre-feet duty means direct crop sale losses of $11.1 million per year to Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata counties. Based on the entire debt of 1.5 million acre-feet, overall direct loss adds to $477 million since 1992.” Some figures put total economic loss to the region at near $1 billion over that period.

Losses include more than 1,700 producers, so Combs insists Mexico's failure to honor its treaty obligations has taken a tremendous toll on Texas farmers and rural communities.

Numbers like $11.1 million, $477 million, $1 billion and 1,700, in a relatively small region, raise red flags to the prospect of economic catastrophe. But statistics don't tell the whole story. Behind every lost dollar and every lost job stands a farmer in jeopardy of losing a lifetime of hard work and investment.

“Our farmers have been devastated by drought and Mexico's refusal to provide water,” Combs says. “Farmers in the Valley are left hanging, twisting in the wind because of Chihuahua.”

Mike England is one of those farmers literally left to hang out to dry. “I think about the tight spot we're in every night before I go to bed and every morning when I get up,” says England, who grows cotton and grain sorghum in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, near Mercedes.

“How we're going to survive is a good question. We just wait and see. We hold no cards, so, in many respects, our future is out of our hands.”

England had to shut down irrigation prematurely this year because reservoirs had too little reserves and Mexico did not release water they owed Texas farmers.

“That 90,000 acre-feet, if we ever see it, will be too late and too little to do us any good,” he says. “It's not even a Band-Aid. It doesn't cover the cut.”

Part of his crops never germinated; part never had adequate moisture to justify planting. And a good portion suffered under a season-long drought with inadequate irrigation to sustain reasonable yield potential.

He says a residual and damaging effect of the current water shortage comes from a change in crop insurance coverage. “We're covered now for dryland yields,” he says. “That means we've paid twice the premium and we're still not adequately covered.”

He says buying crop insurance never gives him a sense of protection. “When I insure a house or a car, I'm confident that if anything happens, my home or my vehicle will be replaced.

“I don't feel that way with crop insurance, especially now that my irrigated yield coverage has been downgraded to dryland. Current coverage doesn't even cover production costs.”

He blames the government in part for “not controlling our water supply.”

England says his plight is not unique. “Many of us in the Valley were not able to irrigate,” he says. “It seems like everyone's crops suffered.”

If the current disaster were an isolated event, England says the prospects would not appear so dire. “But 1991 was a disaster and 1995 was a complete blowout. A lot of farmers are still trying to pay off (debts from) those years and we get a year like this.

“It's frustrating. We finally have a good farm program and we can't get a crop because of our own government's inability to protect our water.”

The losses don't stop at the farm gate.

“Water districts in Texas have closed; others are on the verge of closing,” England says. “Equipment dealers feel the pinch, and farm laborers are losing their jobs.”

Those lost jobs mean less money circulating through communities. “A car dealer recently told me that in May he sold 200 vehicles,” England says. “In June, the number dropped to 50. Our lack of irrigation water affects more than just farmers.”

“Water shortage hurts the entire economy,” Combs says. “The agricultural infrastructure, including cotton gins, packing sheds, farm supply dealers and others suffer because of the water debt.”

Long-term impact

Texas A&M Extension specialist John Norman, Weslaco, says cutting yield potential from cotton takes a huge chunk out of the Valley's economy. With adequate irrigation, cotton farmers make a bale-and-a-half.

Dryland production will make “one bale per acre if we get rain and as little as one-fourth a bale or nothing at all, if we don't,” Norman says.

Diminishing water supplies for the past three years have limited the area's ability to irrigate. “Three years ago, we had 70 percent of the region's cotton under irrigation,” Norman says. “Now, we're down to 30 percent. That's a big decrease in potential yield.”

He says early examination of prepared land led him to believe farmers had decided not to plant cotton this year. “Nothing came up. But by early May, a few plants began to emerge and it became evident that farmers had not had enough rain or irrigation water to germinate the crop.”

He says the 90,000 acre-feet “will make no difference,” for this crop, and releasing no more than 100,000 acre-feet of water per year will provide negligible benefit.

“We have to have the entire 350,000 acre-feet agreed to in the treaty,” he says, “— every year, not occasionally. Our inability to get that water hurts our farmers and our economy severely.”

He says water shortage limits production and profitability for cotton, grain sorghum, citrus and vegetable producers. “We've seen a lot of citrus just burn up this year.”

Norman also points to consumer naiveté as a contributor to water shortages and other impediments to farm profitability. “I've heard some ask why we bother to produce sugar cane, citrus or other crops in this area when we can get them from Cuba or Mexico or somewhere else,” he says.

“Our citizens have never faced a food shortage and don't realize that we can never afford to depend on another country for our food and fiber.”

England says diplomatic solutions should fix the problem. “Mexicans understand the treaty,” he says. “They know they owe us the water; they admit that, but admitting it and releasing it are not the same.”

He acknowledges the efforts of the Texas Farm Bureau, Commissioner Combs and Senator Hutchison in elevating the issue to a higher profile.

“Until they got involved, nothing happened,” he says. “They at least have gotten some doors open and have given us a chance to tell our story.”

Combs says the diplomatic efforts continue but expresses frustration at Chihuahua's apparent intractability. A recent meeting of border state governors in Phoenix was remarkable because Chihuahua Gov. Martinez y Martinez didn't show. He's apparently adept at snubbing his nose at authority.

“He's said that any rain that falls on him belongs to him,” Combs says. “And (Mexican) President Vicente Fox does not have enough support to force compliance. Chihuahua is a strong state.”

Combs and Wells say Chihuahua created its own water shortage by expanding irrigated acreage far beyond the capacity of reservoir and Rio Grande recharge to meet demand. Planting crops with high water requirements exacerbates the problem.

Irrigation expansion in the region, Wells says, was predicated on “normal” rainfall patterns and did not consider long-term weather variations, which include prolonged drought.

“As Chihuahua was adding irrigation, South Texas was cutting back,” Wells says. A population influx put pressure on agricultural production, shrinking farm acreage as residential development and the accompanying industry, schools and mercantile entities moved in to claim farmland.

Hot tempers

Combs says tempers in the Texas Rio Grande farm communities smolder and she hopes the recent agreement to release water sets a precedent of compliance. Although she admits that 90,000 acre-feet represents way too little and is way too late, the gesture shows “good faith and may keep tempers from flaring.

“We value our relationship with Mexico,” she says. “It's positive for the region. Unfortunately, one renegade state remains unchecked.”

Wells says satellite imagery shows 100,000 acre-feet could have been released several months ago, when it would have done Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton, grain, vegetable and citrus growers some good. Instead, most had to restrict irrigation severely and watch yield potential dry up with each hot, rainless day.

Combs says a resolution to the border water war requires “thoughtful efforts” from Mexico, Texas and the U.S. Government. “Long-term, we have to make concerted efforts to improve the irrigation system in the Valley,” she says.

“It's an old, fragile system that will require from $60 million to $100 million to renovate.”

That's on the U.S. side. “Chihuahua has a newer system, but other Mexican states have older, inefficient infrastructure,” Combs says.

“Before we begin to invest money in physical changes, we've got to improve our communication capabilities,” Wells says. “We have to build a communications infrastructure.”

That network would include better data on elevation and stream flow and a more thorough understanding of the entire Rio Grande River Basin.

“We have to know where watersheds extend. Currently, elevation data from Mexico is crude. Texas has some gaps, too, and needs a more accurate model. We have to determine slope and runoff from both sides of the river and for various precipitation levels. We have good soil information from Texas but little from Mexico.”

Wells says better data will play a crucial role in designing models that analyze the long-term viability of natural resources along the Rio Grande.

“And once we start to build the infrastructure, we need to include accurate means of monitoring water flow. We need real-time stream gauge reports from both sides of the border. We've lost some gauges in Texas, and in Mexico only a handful exist, and some of those are not sited in the best locations.”

He says a better weather monitoring system and more satellite images will provide necessary data to manage the Rio Grande water supply.

“But as a preamble to anything done to improve physical systems, we have to take a percentage of allotted funds up front and gather data.”

Take the long view

Ray Prewett, executive vice president of Texas Citrus Mutual and the Texas Vegetable Association, says short-term, knee-jerk reactions will prove detrimental.

“We tend to focus on the immediate need,” he says. “But the treaty has shortcomings and we need to work on that or nothing different will happen.”

He says many South Texas farmers are “upset” over the treaty violations, especially in light of the Catch-22 included in the recent agreement that stipulates Mexico will release 90,000 acre-feet of water from Falcon Reservoir. That partial payment only holds if Chihuahua receives ample rainfall this summer to replace the 90,000 acre-feet.

Otherwise, the United States is obligated to replace, by late October, the difference between the summer's inflow to Chihuahua and the 90,000 acre-feet.

“In principal, that's a bad deal,” Prewett says, “but Chihuahua should get that much water by this fall.”

He's more interested in future demands and Mexico's ability and willingness to treat the Rio Grande and tributaries as a shared natural resource. “At some point, we have to find a way to communicate with folks in Mexico, either through government channels or other means. We have to work on a better relationship.

“Nothing says that Mexico will regulate water differently if we throw money at their infrastructure.” (Mexico has requested funds from the United States to improve their water delivery systems, insisting that with better efficiency they will be better able to repay the debt.)

Prewett says long-term solutions include better monitoring as well as improved stream flows in tributaries to the north. “We have to look at the salt cedar infestation in the Pecos, for instance. Eradicating that pest will free up a lot of water for the Rio Grande.”

He also insists that improving the treaty, not scrapping it, offers the best long-term solution. “We have to find a way to share a common resource.”

That's for the future. For the present, farmers hear rumors the Texas and U.S. governments are trying to provide funds to improve irrigation efficiency and to ease some of the economic stresses for producers.

England is skeptical. “Losses are massive,” he says. “Where do they start to distribute the funds?”

And improving irrigation efficiency on the farm does little good when there's no water to apply. “We've done about all we can do to improve these systems,” he says. “We farm a lot of small fields and we can't justify installing enough pivots and LEPA systems to do any good.

“Commodity prices are not high enough to make the investment worthwhile, either.”

He says Valley farmers will continue to express frustration as long as farmers across the border continue to get preference for water that's supposed to be available to Texans.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com