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Going dry

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Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2012 12:00 am

Mother Nature either plays favorites, or plays jokes. How else can we explain this summer’s weather in the Rio Grande Valley?

Like much of the nation, most of the Valley endured one of the hottest summers on record. As we reported last week, as of June 26 Harlingen had seen 44 days of temperatures above 100 this year; the McAllen area suffered through 65 triple-digit days — more than two full months of days that reached the century mark. In addition, both cities saw barely over an inch of rain from June through August; it was the driest summer ever recorded in Harlingen and the third-driest in McAllen.

That’s significant, considering almost the entire decade of the ’90s was mired in a drought that sank Rio Grande reservoir levels to less than 20 percent of their capacity. A couple of times during that drought, the Rio Grande even ran dry before reaching the Gulf of Mexico a couple of times.

The Brownsville area is as close to Harlingen as it is to the gulf. However, its fate was quite different this summer. It’s proximity to the water keep the area cooler, with just four days above 100. Also, Brownsville’s summer was relatively wet, with nearly 10 inches of rainfall from June through August.

Not that it matters that much. Most of the Valley gets its water from the same source: the river. And while the dry conditions of 20 years ago were centered primarily in South Texas and Northern Mexico, the current drought is drying out much of the country.

If there’s a silver lining to that empty cloud, it’s that people beyond the border area finally are taking notice of our precarious supply of water. U.S. and Mexican officials met Thursday and Friday in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez to discuss border water needs. According to the Texas Water Development Board, other meetings are scheduled this coming month throughout the state to address our water needs.

Let’s hope all this attention leads to action.

During the 1990s drought, in addition to lawsuits against Mexico demanding that it provide us with water that it didn’t have, officials talked seriously about the need to establish conservation measures. They noted that most of the Valley’s water that is drawn from the river is used for agricultural purposes, and it’s channeled to various areas in unlined, uncovered canals. Officials estimate that up to one-fourth of the water that enters those canals is lost to seepage and evaporation.

One idea was to build pipelines to eliminate that water loss. Some suggested incorporating those pipes into a system that connected the Rio Grande to other bodies of water, some as far away as the Texas-Louisiana border. There was talk about seeking new sources of groundwater in the Upper Valley, and of building a new reservoir west of Brownsville.

Then the rains came. And the recession. And most of those plans were shelved. Some canals were lined, and a couple of desalination plants are up and running.

But more needs to be done.

The current widespread drought is a double-edged dagger for South Texas. More people now recognize the urgent need to find ways to better conserve the water we have, and increase our ability to process potable water. However, this area now must compete with other parts of the country for the resources necessary to make those changes happen. As local officials know all too well, those resources are driven by political power — power that this region traditionally hasn’t had.

We don’t know what Mother Nature has in store. But we already have seen how continued dry conditions can devastate the area. Local officials can’t wait for federal officials to invest in our environmental infrastructure. Rather, they should look for ways to help us meet our own future needs for our most basic resource — water.

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