As farmers, we take pride in making sure Americans have food on the table.
Here in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, on a springtime drive, I would normally see thousands of acres of beautiful green sugarcane planted by me and my fellow farmers. However, this year, that is not the case. Our agricultural community has endured for generations, creating jobs and sharing the community with hundreds of residents and numerous small businesses.
Today, all of that is at risk.
Without the water owed to the U.S. from Mexico, the rich agricultural heritage of the Rio Grande Valley will wither away – and with it, the economic engines of small towns and communities disappear.
How did we get to this point?
In 2022, excessive heat and low rainfall partially contributed to international water reservoirs on the Rio Grande dropping to historic low levels, causing water districts in South Texas to restrict water allocations. Over six million people, on both sides of the border, rely on reservoirs along the Rio Grande for drinking water and agricultural production. To save water for municipal use, farmers lost water to irrigate their crops. Many farmers were forced to walk away and the rest of us are left questioning how long we can remain. The other cause of low reservoirs is the failure of our closest trading partner to the south, Mexico, to fulfill its obligation to share the waters of the Rio Grande.
Under the Water Treaty of 1944, signed by the United States and Mexico, our countries are supposed to share water on the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. Mexico is obligated to deliver the runoff from six named tributaries on a five-year cycle. On average, 350,000-acre feet of water should be delivered each year to the international reservoirs for use in the U.S. An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover one acre of land in one foot of water.
The Treaty also rebranded the entity now known as the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) which is an international body composed of the United States Section and the Mexican Section, each headed by an Engineer-Commissioner, appointed by his/her respective President. Each section of the IBWC independently administers its duties to provide oversight and implementation of the Treaty.
Mexico has repeatedly failed to honor its obligation. It has yet to release any of the 2.1 million acre-feet of water captured in its 11 reservoirs since August 2022, toward fulfilling its Treaty obligation to the United States. That is the equivalent of over 2 million acre-feet of land that has not received adequate water for agricultural production.
There is no enforcement mechanism when Mexico doesn’t deliver. The Treaty did not anticipate that one of the signatories would regularly fail to fulfill its obligations. Thus, here we are once again without the water owed by Mexico to the U.S.
On January 31, 2023, Cari-Michel La Caille, Director of the Office of Water for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, wrote to Ramon Macias, Principal Engineer-Commissioner at the Mexican Section of the IBWC, saying in part:
“Texans will soon face another summer without water allotments that Mexico is obligated to provide under the 1944 Water Treaty. Those water delivery shortfalls have now reached historic levels. The current 1944 Water Treaty cycle began on October 25, 2020. As of January 21, 2023, Mexico had a prorated water delivery deficit of 453,945 acre-feet. This is the second largest water deficit Mexico has held in the last three decades at this point in the cycle. Last year, water deliveries from Mexico reached historic lows and U.S. water storage levels in the Amistad-Falcon reservoir system declined precipitously.
“Meanwhile, as of January 21, 2023, Mexican reservoirs were at a total of 69% average capacity, and three of them above 100% capacity. Further, during the current treaty cycle, the appointed Rio Grande Watermaster allocated water to irrigation users in only 11 of 26 months. In fact, the Watermaster was forced to use water from operational reserves in April, May, and June of 2022 and, for the first time, had to apply negative allocations and use irrigation reserves in July of 2022. If current usage rates or weather conditions do not change, further negative allocations could occur this coming summer unless IBWC acts. These unprecedented conditions threaten the health of Texas communities along the Rio Grande and harm local farmers.
“Mexico has spent most of the last three decades in a persistent water delivery deficit. IBWC must hold Mexico accountable for its blatant failure to deliver water at agreed upon levels and compel Mexico to adhere to its treaty obligations. Further, Mexico must make immediate deliveries of water and commit to delivering water during the summer months at an elevated level to address their accrued water deficits. Millions of Texans rely on these critical water deliveries. IBWC must discharge its obligations under the 1944 Water Treaty and require Mexico to fulfill hers.”
Mexico reports nearly 2.9 million acre-feet of water stored in reservoirs on its six Treaty tributaries. That is 2.1 million acre-feet more than what they had on August 1, 2022! The rainwater runoff after the August 2022 rainfall events in Mexico, which should have made its way to the Rio Grande, was captured into the 11 Treaty tributary reservoirs in Mexico. Many of these reservoirs were constructed after the 1944 water-sharing treaty between the United States and Mexico was signed. If this runoff had flowed downstream as the 1944 Treaty anticipated, South Texas would not be experiencing this current irrigation water shortage.
IBWC Commissioner Griner, to her credit, has visited with many affected by the water shortages, as well as with members of the South Texas Congressional delegation while traveling around the Valley and in Washington, D.C. The agriculture community has also engaged with our South Texas representatives, Reps. Henry Cuellar, Monica De La Cruz, Vicente Gonzalez, Tony Gonzales, and Senator John Cornyn, which we thank for their attentiveness to this critical situation in South Texas.
This is not a new fight for those in South Texas. There are more than 30 years of letters from Governors, Senators, Members of the Texas Delegation, Texas Commissions, and even resolutions filed in Washington, D.C. on behalf of our community and the struggles we face because of these continual water shortages.
It should not be this hard to be a farmer in South Texas. We need the water owed to the U.S. by Mexico, and we need it now.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Tudor G. Uhlhorn, chairman of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Cooperative. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Uhlhorn can be reached by email via: [email protected].
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