As Mexico dithers on water releases, impacts loom on U.S. side

HARLINGEN —Whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting over.

U.S. officials have reiterated their demand that Mexico take immediate action to redress their massive water shortfall under a 1944 treaty regulating flows into the Rio Grande.

“Mexican government officials have stated there is enough water stored in the Mexican reservoirs to enable Mexico to meet the needs of Chihuahua farmers during this year’s irrigation season while complying with the treaty,” Jayne Harkins, commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission, said earlier this month.

“They need to increase their water releases to the United States immediately,” she added. “Mexico has failed to implement releases promised earlier and continuing to delay increases the risk of Mexico failing to meet its delivery obligation.”

Under the bilateral 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico is required to divert so much water into the Rio Grande to help fill the Amistad and Falcon Lake reservoirs, which are used as drinking water for residents in both the United States and Mexico, as well as providing critical supplies to U.S. farmers for irrigation.

The water portions delivered by both the United States and Mexico to meet their treaty requirements are measured in five-year cycles. The current cycle ends Oct. 24, and to meet its obligations, Mexico will have to deliver an additional 418,829 acre-feet into the system to replenish Amistad and Falcon Lake.

Few people think it’s going to happen.

Flowing north

There are six Mexican rivers and streams covered by the water treaty — the Conchos, Arroyo las Vacas, San Rodrigo, Escondido, Salado and San Diego. Of these, only the Rio Conchos, which enters the Rio Grande near Presidio, and the Salado River, which flows into Falcon International Reservoir, are significant riverine players when it comes to the water treaty.

“In a typical year, those two account for the vast majority of the flow that is credited to the United States,” said Sally Spener, U.S. secretary for the IBWC. “Some of the others are pretty small, some of them are dry at times, and every 10 years you’ll get a huge storm and you’ll get a big slug of water.”

Of those six rivers, the treaty stipulates that the United States will receive one-third of the flow, which Mexico is required to release from dams into the Rio Grande.

“In the uppermost area, there’s the Rio Conchos, and that’s probably the most productive watershed that contributes water to the Rio Grande,” said Sonny Hinojosa, general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2.

Low lake levels

Harkins’ warning to the Mexican government is the second she issued about the water shortfall this past month.

Mexico has only delivered 1,333,171-acre feet out of its minimum five-year obligation of 1,750,000 acre-feet, and the remaining volume exceeds the 350,000 acre-feet minimum average volume the 1944 Water Treaty requires over an entire year.

That leaves Mexico about 420,000 acre-feet short.

“I want to emphasize that farmers and cities in South Texas rely on this water to get them through the summer,” Harkins said.

For most of this year, at least until the past three months when badly needed rain fell across the region during several storms, the Rio Grande Valley has wobbled between abnormally dry to severe and even extreme drought in some areas.

As a consequence, levels at the reservoirs are down, with Amistad Reservoir at just 35 percent of conservation capacity and Falcon at just 17 percent as of July 24, although for the latter, rains from Hurricane Hanna should help.

“Mexico has been releasing water to the United States from Luis Leon Dam on the Conchos River, but they need to do more,” Spener said. “There is a decent amount of water in Mexican reservoirs in the Rio Grande basin … They have well over a million acre feet just in the Conchos River basin, for example.

“They have reiterated their commitment to meet their treaty obligations but again, the closer it gets to October, the harder it is to do that,” she added.

Farmers rebel

So what’s stopping Mexico from delivering the water required under the 1944 treaty?

Politics, apparently.

In February, Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was forced to call out National Guard troops to block Mexican farmers from seizing two dams, the La Boquilla dam and another near the city of Ojinaga.

Both are on the Rio Conchos.

At the time of the attempted dam seizures — farmers did briefly take over the control room of the dam near Ojinaga — the governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, stated the water should go to local farmers, and that summer rains would refill reservoirs enough to repay the United States, the Associated Press reported.

“We do not want an international conflict,” Lopez Obrador said at the time. “Treaties have to be lived up to. If we have signed a treaty, we have to comply with it.”

Hinojosa gives AMLO credit for at least attempting to abide by the water treaty.

“There’s been attempts by Mexico to release water, but once their farmers catch wind of it, they storm the dams and they stop the releases,” he said.

Treaty deal

Hinojosa has another take on the water issue.

He says the IBWC has gone outside the treaty to cut a deal to ease the problem of Mexico being in arrears in its water obligation.

“We learned a few weeks ago that a deal has been struck with Mexico, and this started May 28, we found out about a month later, that the IBWC is allowing Mexico (to keep) part of their two-thirds flow to the United States” to help Mexico catch up on their deficit, he said.

By allowing Mexico to slide on its treaty obligations, he said it merely condones Mexico’s longstanding habit of ignoring its water pledge to the United States.

“That’s the criticism — that Mexico relies too much on the weather to make good on their treaty obligation, instead of continuously or seasonally releasing water,” he said. “Because Mexico has had plenty of opportunity to stay current.

“But they do not consider the United States as a user when they allocate water,” Hinojosa added. “We’re the residual customer. After all their needs are met, then they’ll consider whether they need to give us water or not. The treaty is not that important to them.”

By contrast, he said, the United States has never failed to deliver the water owed to Mexico farther west, in the Colorado River system.

“I’d like to mention that when, for instance, right now what the IBWC is allowing Mexico to do, it reduces the amount of water in the river and in the international reservoirs,” Hinojosa said. “Because if Mexico owes the U.S. 420,000 acre feet, and that should be one-third of the flows, and if they’re giving us 100 percent of those flows, that means that we, being the reservoir system and the river, are not receiving the other two-thirds.

“So if we’re short 420,000 acre feet, 1.2 million should come into the reservoir and the river system,” he added. “But it’s not because these agreements are being made with Mexico, helping them meet the treaty deliveries, but it’s hurting the ecosystem and in return you have lower reservoir levels in Amistad and Falcon. I think that’s real important.”

A view of Gateway International Bridge Thursday, July 23, 2020, as the Rio Grande flows along between Brownsville, Texas, from left, and Matamoros, Mexico. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Farmers pay price

The impact of Mexico being so deeply in arrears in its water obligations can be seen in the low levels at the Amistad and Falcon reservoirs.

But Hinojosa also says a less visible part of the story are increased expenses for U.S. farmers who are forced to buy additional water to ensure their crops are properly irrigated.

From April through June is when row crops are growing and the Valley uses the most water. He said despite the drought conditions, there was adequate water this year.

But farmers have to hedge their bets. And that means the added expense of buying extra irrigation water, just in case, and that is accomplished in an active water spot-market here in the Valley.

“Sugar cane requires a lot of water and a lot of those growers buy additional supply just to make sure they can have sufficient water throughout the year to finish out their crop,” he said. “So, yes, it’s an added expense.

“Water’s current value is about $30 per acre foot,” Hinojosa said. “So for every acre that a farmer is running short on water, he’s got to spend 30 extra dollars per irrigation. So for a row crop you normally need three irrigations and for sorghum and cotton you may need four. … But sugar cane, you need to water it every month.”

Hinojosa’s frustration about the U.S-Mexico water situation and the impact it has on agricultural interests on this side of the border is apparent.

“It’s important to us who are in this water world,” he said. “For others, it doesn’t matter.”