WESLACO, RGV – A border congressman says it might be time to scrap or amend a 1944 water sharing treaty between the United States and Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela says it is right to question the value of the treaty when Mexico consistently fails to honor its obligations under the pact. The Brownsville Democrat points out that the farming community in the Rio Grande Valley has been devastated by an ongoing drought and it does not help that Mexico has failed to deliver about 400,000 acre-feet of water to the region.

“The water Mexico is holding on to could be delivered today to alleviate the situation but they are not doing it. What is making it even harder is the people that should be protecting us are not,” Vela said, referring to the State Department and the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).

“If things continue the way they are, this country needs to take a real serious look at that (1944) treaty. It has been place for a long, long time. We heard today from Joe they (Mexico) have never complied with it. As some point, when you are doing all the compliance and they are not, why have the treaty?”

The “Joe” Vela referred to is Joe Barrera, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Regional Water Authority.

Congressman Filemon Vela discussed the U.S.-Mexico water dispute at a news conference at the Rio Grande Valley Transit Center in Weslaco.
Congressman Filemon Vela discussed the U.S.-Mexico water dispute at a news conference at the Rio Grande Valley Transit Center in Weslaco.

Vela made his comments at a news conference held at the Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Center in Weslaco. He had called the news conference to announce new legislation that would require the State Department to provide Congress with an annual report on whether Mexico is complying with the 1944 treaty.

The full name of the 1944 pact is the “Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.” Under the pact, the U.S. has to provide 1.5 million acre feet of water a year to Mexico from the Colorado River in Arizona, while Mexico has to provide an average of 350,000 acre feet of water a year from the Conchos River basin in Chihuahua to South Texas. The transfers are measured in five year cycles.

“Mexico has never honored its treaty obligation to Texas,” Barrera told the Guardian. “Up until about the 1970s it was done naturally because there were no dams. Since then, Mexico has built a number of dams in Chihuahua and held back water. Since the 1970s, Mother Nature has bailed Mexico out. When Mother Nature has not bailed it out, Mexico has transferred water from lakes that were not part of the treaty. So, they have never honored their treaty obligations.”

Barrera said Chihuahua is not in a drought and that one of its dams on the Conchos River is currently at 114 percent capacity. He also warned that if the Valley does not have consistent water transfers from Mexico it will not be able to attract new industry. “Industry will not come to the Valley because of the fear that this will happen again. They will look twice here before they move manufacturing here.”

If Mexico does not honor its obligations under the 1944 treaty and if the State Department and the IBWC does not force Mexico to comply, Vela said it would only be right for Congress to look again at the reauthorization of Minute 319. This section of the pact governs water transfers from the U.S. to Mexico from the Colorado River. “IBWC needs to understand we are not going to let that (reauthorization) period go by without this situation being rectified and they need to know that as they move towards reauthorization, we are looking.”

A reporter at the news conference asked Vela if the U.S. should consider pulling the plug on foreign aid to Mexico if it fails to comply with the 1944 treaty. “We have very significant economic ties with Mexico. Moving forward I am going to continue to do what I can to apply the pressure right but I can tell you that is not something I haven’t thought about,” Vela responded. He said that in addition to the bill requiring the State Department to report on the treaty, he has another bill appertaining to Mexico’s water debt drafted that he could file at any time. He did not say what the bill would do.

A number of Valley irrigation district managers were at Vela’s news conference. One of them, Frank ‘Jo Jo’ White of Mercedes made a dire prediction about irrigated crop farming. He said farmers in his district have left half their farms fallow this year due to a lack of water. He said next year they could be completely wiped out, unless there is a big climatic change or compliance with the water treaty. “We won’t have a growing season. The negative economic impact is going to be tremendous,” White told Vela.

Later, the Guardian asked White to expand on his comments.

“It is bad this year. Half of the acreage in my district was not even planted due to this dire water shortage so this is already going to be a negative impact this year on the growers. They are just trying to salvage half of their farms,” White said. “Next year, if things don’t change and we don’t get the rainfall and if there are no allocations, if Mexico does not comply, if there is no big climatic event, our supplies are so low right now we won’t be able to grow anything. It will be a dry land area. It is really unfortunate because it was this irrigated crop land that initially made this region what it is today.”

White had earlier pointed out to Vela, a Democrat, that South Texas votes heavily for the Democrats. He asked if this counted for anything with the Obama Administration. If it did, one would think the Administration would make treaty compliance an important agenda item, White said. Vela responded that Cameron County went 65 percent for Obama in the last election, while Hidalgo County went 70 percent. In Webb County it was an even higher percentage, Vela said. “You would think that would make a difference and so far it hasn’t. On more than one occasion I have made that point,” Vela said, in reply to White’s point.

Jim Darling, president of the Rio Grande Regional Water Authority, said agriculture is a $1 billion industry in the Valley. “It is a huge economic driver for our area,” he said. He also pointed out that the border region of South Texas is unique in that it is the only part of the United States that relies on another nation for its water. He said the Valley simply could not function if it only relied on the 25 inches or so of rainwater it gets each year. “We are under the mercy of a foreign country for our water. I don’t think any other part of the United States is. It is important we get Washington’s attention on this because we cannot do self-help,” Darling said. “Almost two million people rely on the (Rio Grande) river for water supply.”

Darling said he has researched previous droughts in the region. He said that in 1954, before the construction of Amistad and Falcon dams, there was no water in the Rio Grande for 90 days. He said but for the two reservoirs the Valley would likely not have any water today. Back in 1954, he said, irrigators dug wells. He said that option would not work today. He said there is about 90,000 acre feet of water in the coastal aquifer. Municipalities in the Valley use 270,000 acre feet of water, he said.

“Drilling wells is not the answer here. The answer is the federal government being responsible to the citizens of our cities, through the efforts of people like Congressman Vela to make sure that Mexico does meet the requirements of the treaty and treat us fairly like we have them,” Darling said.

A reporter asked Vela and the irrigators if it would be advantageous for Valley farmers to unite with their counterparts in northern Tamaulipas to put pressure on the Mexican government to release water from the Conchos River Basin. Sonny Hinojosa, general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2, said the farmers in northern Tamaulipas are less reliant on water from Chihuahua than they used to be because the Mexican government had started sending water via the Marte R. Gomez Reservoir on the San Juan River.

Wrapping up the news conference, Vela said: “We (the United States) are complying with our part of the deal and that is helping people in Mexico. But, down here, the fact that our IBWC and State Department aren’t forcing Mexico’s hand and making them comply with the treaty on the Texas-Mexico border, it is having a devastating impact on our farming community and it is going to have a very negative economic impact on our region.” Vela said he will continue to fight for the water transfers.