Joe Pennington was on his way to the irrigation district office to have water he'd just bought allocated to his 500-acre sugar cane crop. We caught up with him on his cell phone and asked if he'd talk about the drought in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
By the time we finished, he could have driven damn near to San Antonio. He had a lot to talk about.
For starters, out of the 4,100 acres of cotton he planted this year, he'll harvest 340. “And that's not good cotton,” he said. “We usually make 200 car loads of milo. We'll harvest 26 this year.”
Low yields and abandoned acreage represent only part of the problem. Since farmers were prevented from irrigating much of their acreage this year, they had to insure crops under dryland regulations.
“That means we paid a higher premium because the risk is greater, and we insured for lower yields,” Pennington said. “Instead of a 750 pounds per acre irrigated cotton average, we had to accept 450 pounds per acre and paid a higher premium for it. It's bad.”
And it likely will get worse before it gets better. “Next year, we will not have irrigation water to start with,” he said.
“I've just bought enough water to irrigate the cane crop one last time, and I paid for just under 1,500 acre-feet to get the crop this far. We've been able to buy some water outside the district from farmers whose crops failed early and could not use it.”
That option likely will not be available next year. “It's way beyond serious,” Pennington said. “We need a hurricane — not the damage that comes with it but a good 15 to 20 inches of rain one would bring.”
He's discounting any possibility of getting water from Mexico, despite the more than 1.5 million acre-feet debt Mexico owes per the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty, which the Mexican government has largely ignored since 1992.
“Our situation, as farmers in one small region of the United States, seems to warrant little attention in Washington,” he said. “The situation with Mexico is international, and our government worries more about NAFTA and immigration than it does the water treaty.”
Irrigation district managers share Pennington's frustration. “We've been devastated this season,” said Jo Jo White, manager of the Mercedes Irrigation District, which includes the Weslaco area. “This will be one of the worst crop-years on record, but next year looks to be even worse. Water levels in both Falcon and Amistad reservoirs are at an all-time low. We will not have an irrigation season in 2003 unless something miraculous happens from Mother Nature before December. Mexico is not likely to do anything and our government doesn't appear willing to do anything either.”
White said if the region had received just the annual water allotment from Mexico, 350,000 acre-feet, as agreed to in the treaty, farmers could have irrigated and salvaged the 2002 crop. “We would have had a successful growing season, but we would have used it (water) all up. A lot of cotton and grain sorghum farmers abandoned acreage. The situation is bleak, very bleak.”
“We're just about out of water,” said Wayne Halbert, manager of the Harlingen Irrigation District. “A lot of farmers ran out and couldn't finish their crops. They took a big hit.”
Few farms were spared, he said, “but some districts in the Valley suffered more than others.”
Like White and Pennington, Halbert expects no water from Mexico to help with next season's production.
“We've been fighting with our own government to get them to take action,” he said.
“We've run into a stone wall in Washington,” White said. “The State Department will not force the issue without direction from President Bush, and for some reason, he will not move.”
“Farmers are getting frustrated,” Halbert said.
But it's not just farmers who are hurting, according to Pennington. “Chemical companies in this area are not selling anything. Early on, many farmers simply quit applying pesticides and quit spending money. We don't have a lot invested in this crop, but we're not going to make anything either.”
He said the co-op gin most farmers in his area use will not open. “They can't find enough volume to justify operating,” he said. “They've contracted with another gin to take their usual customers. It's a sound move.”
He said equipment and car dealerships, as well as other businesses, will hurt as farmers pinch pennies to get by.
All three express frustration that American citizens suffer because Mexico refuses to honor its treaty obligations.
“To a farmer in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, this represents a matter of economic survival,” Pennington said. “And it's a shame that Mexico uses our water to produce crops they transport across the river and sell into our markets. They don't pay federal taxes and they don't have to abide by the food safety, worker compensation, OSHA and minimum wage requirements we have to follow.”
He said when Honda and Toyota began shipping cars into the United States automobile manufacturers in Detroit kicked up enough fuss that the government forced the Japanese automakers to comply with California emissions standards. “They (the U.S. government) are not doing anything to force Mexico to follow regulations we have to adhere to.”
Halbert says the issue goes deeper than just enforcing a treaty.
“Ultimately, Mexico must change its attitude and accept that they have to abide by the treaty. Currently, they don't apply any process to determine need and allocations. If water flows in the river, they use it.”
They should follow a plan, he said. “For every drop of water in the system, they should consider a list of obligations, including their treaty responsibility. Currently, we're not on the list. We get any water they can't capture.”
Halbert said few treaties come with adequate teeth for enforcement. “It's a matter of integrity of the country and sometimes we have to force integrity.”
So far, the United States government has been unwilling to force anything. “It's been impossible to convince the government to use the stick,” he said, “— only the carrot. They (Mexican farmers) eat the carrot and go on about their business.
“I admit that I don't know the best options. Abiding by the treaty would result in drastic hurt on their side because the state of Chihuahua has developed water demand far beyond their capacity to supply it. They've made no allowance for treaty obligations.”
White said Chihuahua has not only expanded irrigated acreage but also switched to crops with higher water demands, alfalfa, vegetables and pecans instead of cotton and grain.
“Chihuahua has become an oasis, but maintaining that oasis means they take a lot of water that belongs to us. The illegal water capture also benefits only one state in Mexico, Chihuahua.
“We're being wronged and this is a bad omen for our nation's leadership if they allow it to continue. The only thing we can do is embarrass our own government into taking action. Mexico depends on the United States more than the United States depends on Mexico.”
White said farmers in the Valley “feel abandoned.”
Pennington said the long-term consequences could be severe. He has three children, all currently attending Texas A&M and all interested in some aspect of agriculture. His oldest son, Spence, a senior, will be Corps Commander this fall and likely will go into the military after graduation.
“But he wants to farm,” Pennington says. “He's getting a degree in agricultural economics with minors in agronomy and economics. His economics courses have shown him how bad things are, so he'll spend some time in the military and then evaluate the possibilities.”
The second son, Tobin, a junior this year, hopes to go into veterinary medicine, and his daughter, Ellen, who begins her freshman year this fall, wants to find a career that will allow her to be an advocate for the family farm.
“I don't like to think about them not coming back to the farm,” Pennington said. “I want them close.”