Back to mobile

Boiling Point

Reservoir Wars Along the U.S.-Mexico Border
by Published on

Also: Mary Kelly on Mexico’s Water Deficit following article

While the federal government focuses on the war in Afghanistan and bioterrorism threats at home, a feud is reaching boiling point on the South Texas border over Mexico’s refusal to release a portion of its 1.4 million acre-foot water debt to the U.S—water that could rescue South Texas’ parched farming industry.

Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley say they have been going thirsty for years. According to a 1944 U.S./Mexico water treaty, Mexico must deliver 350,000 acre-feet of water to U.S. reservoirs annually to feed the Rio Grande, while the United States is required to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to Mexico every year. But since 1992, Mexico officials say they have been unable to make the yearly water releases because of extreme drought. South Texas farmers have disputed that claim. Last February, President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox struck an agreement requiring Mexico to provide 600,000 acre-feet of water to the lower Rio Grande Valley, which yielded 311,000 acre-feet last spring for South Texas. But since then, not a drop has been released from reservoirs in Mexico and farmers in the Valley are estimating that next year’s planting season will be one of the worst in history.

Jo Jo White, an irrigation district manager for the city of Mercedes, said that the water supply in his district is down to just 15 percent of capacity, and that at least seven other districts are likewise close to empty. “I’ve got farmers in my office just about every morning and they are panicky about the situation,” said White. “They are worried about their livelihoods.”

“We are at an all-time low,” he said. “Right now, there’s not enough water for next year’s planting season.” For months White, along with other irrigation district managers and farmers, hoped that negotiations between the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC)—which works along with its Mexican sister agency the Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas (CILA) to track binational water issues—and Mexican officials would yield enough water to salvage the upcoming planting season, which begins in January. But in two meetings in October, farmers learned that Mexico will not be able to honor the February agreement, Minute Order 307, because of political conflicts between Mexican border governors and Fox, and because Mexican officials claim the country is suffering from extreme drought.

White and other Valley water stakeholders contend, however, that Mexico is using U.S. water to bolster its growing agricultural industry, which competes directly with U.S. industry. “It seems like we are being sacrificed for Mexico’s economy,” said Gordon Hill, Bayview irrigation district manager. “They are holding our water and growing their fruits and vegetables (with it) to sell to us.” Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, fruit and vegetable imports from Mexico have nearly doubled to 2 billion pounds through South Texas ports of entry, said Hill.

Increasingly, south Texas farmers are pointing the finger at the State of Chihuahua, where they say important water stores are being hoarded in the Rio Conchos basin instead of being released to honor Mexico’s water debt. In what White called a “very heated” October 18 meeting in Austin with Mexican diplomat Alberto Szekely, Valley water users accused Mexico of hoarding water at the expense of Texas farmers. “He told us Mexico didn’t have the water,” said White, recounting his version of the meeting. “And we showed him that one state did have water, and it was hoarding it—now was his government willing to go in and force Chihua-hua to comply?” Szekely remained silent on the question, said White.

In a phone interview from his Mexico City office, Szekely, who is an adviser to Mexico’s Foreign Ministry, said that water was a federal issue and that border governors had no jurisdiction over the water. “They cannot decide to release or not release water,” he said. He would not confirm whether Fox was having political conflicts with the border governors. Szekely went to the Austin meeting, he said, to reassure Valley water users that Mexico would honor the 1944 U.S./Mexico Water Treaty. “No matter how many times we say we are committed to honoring the treaty, we are misrepresented,” he said. Mexican reservoirs had lost 83 percent of their capacity and it would be impossible to pay back a portion of the water debt until Mexico received significant rainfall, he said. “When we have rain, we’ll honor the treaty,” said Szekely.

The IBWC tracks reservoir levels in Mexico and the United States. According to their statistics, in late October the Rio Conchos Basin held 900,000 acre-feet of water, while the whole of Northern Mexico had about 2 million acre-feet of water in its reservoirs. While not much for a vast system that can hold as much as 10 million-acre feet during non-drought years, it is enough to release a portion of water to stave off disaster for South Texas’ upcoming planting season, say IBWC officials and Valley water users. “There is sufficient water for release,” said IBWC Commissioner Carlos Ramirez at an October 17 meeting in McAllen. “They have enough to meet our needs and theirs.”

Ramirez attributed Fox’s failure to honor Minute Order 307 to internal political conflicts and a series of lawsuits filed to stop Mexico’s payment of the water. “Fox committed to things that the border governors were not in agreement with,” he said. Except for the state of Nuevo Leon, all the border governors belong to the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) while Fox is from the PAN (National Action Party). “There are problems between these two parties,” Ramirez observed. Ismael Aguilar, an economics professor at the Technological Institute in Monterrey, Mexico, who has written extensively on binational water issues, said that Fox’s signing of Minute Order 307 angered the border governors. “They were taken by surprise and very upset,” Aguilar said, “because they have enormous pressures on them from their water users, and they felt they were not consulted by Fox.”

Compounding the political infighting, agricultural unions representing some of those users—farmers in the Mexican border states of Tamaulipas and Coahuila—have filed lawsuits in federal court to prevent the country from releasing water to the United States. Szekely said that the federal government was anxious to resolve the lawsuits, but he could not say when that would happen. “It depends on the judges,” he said. “But we have asked them to make a decision as soon as possible.”

The news Szekely delivered in Austin, that water payments would be suspended for an indefinite period of time, did little to reassure Valley farmers, who say they are on the brink of financial ruin. Brothers Tommy and Jesus Garcia lost $200,000 last year on their citrus groves because of reduced yields and smaller-sized fruit resulting from the lack of water. With dwindling water supplies, they will have to cut back even further the next harvesting season, said Tommy Garcia. “It kills me to drive by one of my groves and see the trees crying out for water, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.

Third-generation farmers in the Valley, the brothers said they would probably be the last in their family to invest in farming, because it had become too costly and the drought was destroying their already tenuous business. The brothers, who attended the October 18 meeting, had looked to Mexico to ease some of their burdens, in the hopes that the country would at least come up with enough water to carry them through the next harvesting season. But they returned to the Valley disappointed, they said. “We weren’t expecting the whole deficit to be paid, just a portion of the water,” said Jesus Garcia. “They need to throw a bone to us with a little meat on it.”

“He [Szekely] told us that Tamaulipas was having a hard time and the farmers were suing the Mexican government not to release the water,” said Jesus Garcia. “But we aren’t asking for anything that isn’t ours.”

Border representatives like U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz are currently considering whether to try to impose sanctions against Mexico for its failure to release the water. In a recent press release, Ortiz said he would suggest that Mexico pay higher tariffs on imports to compensate for profits realized from the use of U.S. water. Gordon Hill, manager of the Bayview Irrigation District, said that an acre-foot of water would be worth $650 to a farmer in the Valley, and that farmers there had already lost $400 million last year.

White and other Valley water stakeholders say that they have lost hope that the IBWC can resolve the treaty conflicts. “It’s reached the point that it’s evident that this will have to be solved between Fox and Bush,” said White. Experts are already projecting that border populations will double in the next 40 years, and that serious long-term negotiations and planning will have to be undertaken to conserve and manage the dwindling Rio Grande water supply. Otherwise, the water issue could seriously damage relations between the United States and Mexico, which Fox and Bush have tried to improve.

“The future does not look promising,” said Ismael Aguilar, who recently co-wrote a report on the Rio Grande Basin for the Houston-based Mitchell Center for Sustainable Development. “There is still such a major lack of understanding about water. Even the high-level officials who drafted the 1944 water treaty didn’t understand it fully.”

“For a long time we were extremely lucky,” Aguilar said. “But we can’t continue to rely on tropical storms to replace long-term water management strategies.”

The good news is that the enduring drought has many officials on both sides of the border thinking seriously for the first time about a binational drought-management and sustainable water management plan. In September, a group of U.S. hydrologists were invited to visit Mexican reservoirs to see how the system was being run and to check reservoir levels. IBWC Commissioner Carlos Ramirez characterized operations there as haphazard. “There is not very much of an accountability or management system,” he said. “They open the gates whenever someone needs water.”

As a result, Mexico has asked U.S. experts in drought and water management to work with Mexican officials on a long-term water management plan that will take into account the needs of rivers, municipalities, and agriculture as well as the treaty requirements, said Ramirez at the October 17 meeting in McAllen. “I know how serious the problem is here,” Ramirez assured farmers and irrigation district managers at the meeting. “But it’s also serious on the Mexican side.”

While water stakeholders on both sides of the border would like to see a binational conservation and management plan hammered out between the two nations in the future, it does little to alleviate their hardships now. “Conservation and management—that will take time to evolve,” said Gordon Hill, manager of an irrigation district that is already down to 10 percent of its capacity. “What will the government do to help the farmers who go out of business now?”

In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which lies directly across from the Rio Grande Valley, Mexican farmers have suffered even worse losses because of drought. Guadalupe Herebia, a 64-year-old farmer in the border city of Rio Bravo, said that he hasn’t been able to irrigate his fields since 1996. Herebia switched from the more lucrative corn and beans to sorghum because it takes less water. And he now relies solely on the rain for his crops.

“Here we live by luck and the rain,” said Herebia. No longer able to make a full-time living from farming, Herebia has moved his family into town where he has a part-time business fixing fire extinguishers. “It’s a sad thing to see the water in the river and not be able to use any of it,” he said. Ciro Torres, who also farms sorghum, and is the secretary for Rio Bravo’s agricultural union, said that local farmers are asking for a government subsidy this year to offset their losses from drought. “The governor promised us 1 million and 76 thousand pesos,” said Torres. “Because we are fighting just to keep our families alive.”

Water stakeholders on both sides said they are counting on Fox and Bush to solve the mounting water crisis—but the federal government has its mind on other issues at the moment. “We are a low priority right now, and rightly so considering what the federal government is facing,” said Jo Jo White. “But the President advised that we go back to our normal business after the terrorist attacks. We can’t, not unless Mexico meets its commitment.”

Melissa Sattley is a reporter at The Monitor in McAllen.

INTERVIEW

Mary Kelly On Mexico’s Water Deficit

BY SANDRA SPICHER

In 1944 the U.S. and Mexico signed a treaty divvying up water along their shared border, including the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Much of the Rio Grande’s flow, especially below Big Bend, comes from key tributaries on the Mexican side. The treaty obligates Mexico to maintain a minimum level of flow from those tributaries into the Rio Grande, which provides water for use by Texas farmers and municipalities. Due to extreme drought since 1992 in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and other factors, Mexico has fallen behind on its share. Texas farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, suffering from a drought of their own, want Mexico to pay up. But how? On a gray, rainy morning in Austin, T.O. spoke with Mary Kelly, director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, about the politics of water.

Texas Observer: At the recent U.S.-Mexico Border Summit, you served on a panel called “Border Water and Environmental Challenges and Opportunities.” What were some of those challenges and opportunities?

Mary Kelly: I spoke primarily about water management issues. One of the higher profile issues now is the 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty and the [water] deficit that Mexico is running. It’s important to point out that Mexico is not violating the treaty. Mexico can run a deficit when there is an extraordinary drought. Mexico has agreed to pay back that water when it can and is making good-faith efforts to do that. The level of rhetoric that’s coming out of the state, and the farmers in particular, accusing Mexico of deliberately violating the treaty, withholding water to hurt Texas farmers, is not helpful. We’re going to have to cooperate on water issues for a long time.

TO: How is water allotted–who gets priority–on both sides of the border? Cities, industry, agriculture?

MK: The 1944 treaty gives higher priority to municipal use, as does Texas law. That’s pretty standard. The countries agreed to divide equally the waters in the main stem of the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman, and the U.S. has rights to one third of the water from various Mexican tributaries that reach the Rio Grande, with the requirement that Mexico provide a minimum of 350,000 acre-feet a year over a five-year cycle. Mexico wasn’t able to provide that minimum over the last five-year cycle, which ended in 1997, and that’s why it has a deficit of about a million acre-feet. It’s also behind somewhat in this current cycle.

One of the reasons we’re concerned that the rhetoric not escalate too much is that, for around forty years, almost since the treaty was signed, Mexico provided four to five times the minimum flow. The river’s relatively healthier with that kind of flow. Mexico is not required to ever provide more than the minimum, but it has been. It gets no credit for that under the way the treaty accounting works. There’s a conce
n from the public interest that the r
etoric doesn’t escalate such that Mexico says, “Fine, we’re never going to provide more than our minimum.” That would cause a permanent drought situation for the shared portion of the Rio Grande. That’s bad for the river, it’s bad for the Valley, and bad for Tamaulipas [the Mexican border state across from the Lower Rio Grande River Valley].

TO: What about conservation in cities and industry?

MK: Industrial water use is actually, proportionately, quite small. Irrigated agriculture still accounts for 80, 85 percent of the water use in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. [The Valley] has, in my mind, done the best job in the entire state in incorporating conservation. Their plan for meeting future water needs is essentially conservation in the agricultural sector, because a lot of that irrigation is inefficient. It’s going to require money to help farmers conserve water, but agricultural conservation and really aggressive measures in municipal conservation are primarily how they’re going to meet their future water needs. They’re also looking at desalination, which is expensive, and then Brownsville has a proposal to construct something called a weir, which is a dam, which is just a silly proposal. But it’s included in the water plan because of political pressure, essentially, from Brownsville.

TO: Is it the Brownsville farmers who want the weir?

MK: No. In fact, the farmers have never been enthusiastic. It’s the city. They want to show they have excess water to attract big-time industrial development to the Port of Brownsville.

TO: So you don’t think NAFTA and the border maquiladoras have had much effect?

MK: I think they have had an effect, but it has been more indirect than anything else. Attracting workers and increasing population on both sides of the border has increased municipal demand for water. This river basin has been managed for years for irrigated agriculture. That’s why we developed these reservoirs, to foster irrigation in the basin. While agriculture is–I really want to emphasize this–a very important part of the economy, and it’s important to quality of life that we not destroy our farms, we’re going to have to rethink the way we manage this basin because we have a lot of different needs out there, and we can’t manage for agriculture alone.

TO: In Klamath Falls, Oregon, farmers have been opening irrigation gates illegally, to protest the policy of reserving enough water for endangered salmon and suckerfish. Has anything of that nature gone on around the Rio Grande?

MK: We don’t have the same kind of endangered species issues that you have on the Klamath. But the Klamath is in a bad situation because people ignored it for a long time and didn’t work out reasonable sustainable water management plans for the basin. What we’ve been saying is, now is the time to work out these plans. It’s probably a little late, but let’s hope it’s not too late.

TO: Mexico is requesting an emergency loan of water, rather than considering repayment. What do you make of that?

MK: It’s saying to the U.S., we don’t have the water to pay you back. The water they do have is stored way up in La Boquilla. It takes water to move water, and they’d waste so much trying to move it down. They need water to meet minimum needs, and it’s not raining in Chihuahua right now. It’s raining everywhere else, but it’s not raining in Chihuahua.

TO: In your view, what would be the best possible solution to these problems?

MK: That we develop a drought management plan, a sustainable water management plan. The drought management plan would ensure that drought triggers are recognized early on and we start taking action to avoid the kind of situation we have now, where Mexico has a big deficit. A sustainable water management plan would provide incentives encouraging Mexico to let as much water go down the river as possible so we keep a healthy river system, which is going to benefit both countries in the end. We need to involve a lot of different interests in the basin to come up with that plan. We need to make information available on the status of reservoirs and river flows so anybody can go to the Internet and see it. It builds trust.

TO: And what is the most likely outcome? Do you see that as a possibility?

MK: I’ll be optimistic, because we’re tied together by the decisions we make on how to manage this river. And it’s an interesting geographic setup, because you have Chihuahua controlling the watersheds that provide a lot of the water flow to the Rio Grande, but downstream we have another Mexican state, Tamaulipas, so you can’t really have Chihuahua cutting off water too much without hurting Tamaulipas. You have the factors lined up to contribute to a reasonable solution. But it is going to require rhetoric that is less dogmatic than what’s been coming out.

TO intern Sandra Spicher is an MFA candidate at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin.