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South Texas area thirsty for water from Mexico

A long-standing water debt is costing Texans both jobs and dollars. The water debt stems from a 1944 treaty between Mexico and the United States that requires Mexico to release a minimum annual average of 350,000 acre-feet of water into the Rio Grande.

An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water, or roughly 326,000 gallons of water. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) conducts assessments of Mexico's water releases every five years, and in the latest assessment, conducted in October 2002, the commission found that Mexico owed the United States nearly 1.5 million acre-feet of water, or about 500 billion gallons.

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn estimated this water debt cost Texans more than 3,000 jobs and $105 million in personal income in 2002. The Comptroller also estimated Texans would have gained an additional $143 million in personal income by 2007 if water deliveries had been kept current and available for agricultural production.

According to IBWC, in May 2002 Mexican President Vicente Fox guaranteed that Mexico would meet its obligations to the treaty, reduce deficits in water deliveries to the U.S. and help meet the demands of downstream communities on both sides of the border.

Falling behind
The IBWC is responsible for monitoring boundary and water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico and settling differences that arise in the application of the treaties. According to IBWC's Sally Spener, IBWC staff are also the official "keepers of the debt."

"As of June 14, [2003] it stood at 1,426,006 acre feet," Spener said of Mexico's water debt to the U.S.

Spener said that until 1992, Mexico had been up-to-date on its deliveries, at least with regard to the five-year reporting cycle. If Mexico delivered less than its obligatory 350,000 acre-feet of water in a given cycle year--October to October--it made up the difference the following year.

The treaty provides for the distribution of water between the U.S. and Mexico from two rivers that make up part of the border between the countries--the Rio Grande in Texas and the Colorado along a 24-mile stretch in Arizona. Spener said the U.S. has always met its obligations, but when Mexico's deliveries fell behind, Mexican officials blamed "extraordinary drought." She said the treaty does not define "extraordinary drought," and U.S. representatives want Mexico to meet the terms of the treaty.

"Historically, there was always enough water coming in from Mexican tributaries to meet obligations to the U.S.," she said. "In recent years, that has not been the case, and the U.S. has urged Mexico to release water from Mexican reservoirs."

The Rio Grande is essentially two separate rivers in this case: the river as it comes out of New Mexico and down to El Paso and the river downstream from El Paso.

Spener said the water flow downstream of El Paso is very low until the river is fed by the Rio Conchos, flowing from Mexico about 100 river miles--100 miles of winding river as opposed to 100 miles in a straight line--downstream. She said releases from the reservoirs along the Rio Conchos in Mexico feed into the Rio Grande and ultimately flow into one of two international reservoirs further downstream: the Amistad and Falcon.

Water, but not enough
The Amistad and Falcon reservoirs have water, but not nearly what they should have, according to Carlos Rubinstein, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) watermaster for the region. A watermaster oversees the flow of a river and monitors releases. Rubinstein said the reservoir situation is better than it has been, but isn't great.

"We're not out of the woods," he said. "We're still in a very depressed situation. They owe us more water than [is] actually in the reservoirs."

Rubinstein said the two reservoirs combined have 1.1 million acre-feet in them, which is roughly 34 percent of capacity.

Despite the low levels, the situation is better than it has been in recent years.

"Lake levels are still low," said John Robinson, an extension economist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in Weslaco County. "It's not as bad as 1996 or 1998, but still below where they need to be. There were four to five years of dire straits where I saw many farmers go out of business or bankrupt."

Robinson said farmers will likely have something to harvest this year, just maybe not as much as they would like to see. He said drought and low prices have combined with the water deficit to account for farmers' difficulties.

"If the question is 'Are you hurt this year by lack of water from previous years?' The answer is yes," he said.

Robinson said the Lower Rio Grande is a little better off this year.

"It's been another hot and dry year once we got going, but we did have more moisture over the fall and winter than the last four years," he said. "Most farmers were able to plant with available moisture rather than irrigation, so we got off to a good start."

Robinson said water from the Rio Grande irrigates about 30 percent of the almost 1 million farmable acres in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs estimated that South Texas farmers lost $259 per acre in 2001 and 2002 due to the water debt.

Some farmers will recover a portion of their losses in the form of economic aid. Combs announced in July 2003 that $10 million in federal aid for nearly 466,000 acres will be divided among farmers in South Texas. Farmers will receive an average of more than $21 an acre. Eight million dollars of that aid will go to farmers in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.

Getting a share
How farmers and other authorized water users along the Rio Grande, including cities and municipalities, get water is a story in itself.

The U.S. is entitled to one-third of the water that flows out of Mexican tributaries into the Rio Grande and ultimately into the reservoirs. Downstream users request water from Rubinstein. TCEQ approves the requests and authorizes IBWC to release the water.

"[TCEQ officials] are the only ones that get water released, and U.S. water can only be released on our order," he said. Factors affecting the timing of releases include the time of year, the amount of water a user is authorized to have and the time it takes for the water to make it downstream to a user. For example, it takes seven days for releases to reach Brownsville, compared with three days for McAllen. The number of requests increases during growing season.

"During peak irrigation season, I get about 100 to 120 requests per day," Rubinstein said. "During the non-peak times, it goes down to 20 or 30 a week."

Rubinstein, who is based in Harlingen, is assisted by five watermaster specialists, or investigators, in "policing" more than 1,100 river miles of the Rio Grande to make sure the water in the river is delivered to the more than 1,600 authorized users of the system. He said Hidalgo and Cameron counties use 90 percent of the water released downstream. Rubenstein rarely finds anyone out of compliance.

"[Users] respect the importance of the resource and realize that getting their water depends on the actions of those upstream," he said. "The river doesn't lie. If there's not the amount we are looking for, then we know that something isn't right. These farmers know each other, and there's a respect between them, and they don't want to do something that'll make it hard for another to get their water, hoping the same will be done by upstream users."

Going with the flow
Despite the large water debt, Mexico is making an effort to stay current in 2003 and to slowly whittle away at the deficit, according to Spener.

"Mexico has expressed an interest in trying to keep current with the guidelines of the treaty as it reads," she said. "How to pay [the debt] off has been an ongoing subject of negotiation."

Spener said there was an understanding at the beginning of 2003 that Mexico would deliver up to 400,000 acre-feet of water--50,000 more than required--by the end of the cycle year in October. It had delivered almost 300,000 acre-feet of that by June 2003.

Spener added that improvements in the efficiency of irrigation systems in both countries would help reduce loss and increase conservation measures, making more water available in the reservoirs and the Rio Grande.

Rubinstein said rains during the summer months downstream from the reservoirs provided water to users, meaning fewer releases were necessary. He said fall and winter rains are a big help as well. An example of "off-season" rains relieving drought occurred in 2002. In 2001, the Rio Grande stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"The Rio Grande is flowing back into the Gulf now," he said. "It's largely attributed to the rains in the fall [2002] in being able to break it through to the Gulf."

The Rio Grande is the sole source of water for communities, businesses and farmers along the 1,200-mile border between Texas and Mexico. Along with the increased demand from a growing population along the river and decreased releases from upstream reservoirs in Mexico, the river faces a new enemy slowing its progress: hydrilla. The invasive weed chokes waterways and threatens wildlife.

"Hydrilla slows everything down," said Robinson. "It limits how much can be pumped out, and it limits how much can flow down the river."

Rubinstein said the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is trying to control the non-native hydrilla plant by removing the plant mechanically and by releasing grass-eating carp into the river. TPWD released almost 4,000 of the fish in May 2003 and released an additional 22,000 in June 2003.

Eliminating the water debt and providing water reserves for the growing population of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is key for groups such as the IBWC and state and federal agencies. In some cases, according to Combs, more definitive steps may be necessary, including halting U.S. deliveries of water from the Colorado River or possibly stopping economic development foreign aid.

"It is time to look at reprisals, and I believe that all options should be on the table," said Combs.

Clint Shields