The Texas Rio Grande Valley, like many spots across Texas and the Southwest, is running short on water. And it’s not just farmers suffering across the region, but cities, industry and residents as well.

A mixed group of city and county leaders, farmers, representatives of irrigation districts, and business and industry leaders gathered in Weslaco to listen to regional, state and international water authorities talk about the growing water crisis the Valley is facing and, if the rain doesn’t fall soon, where the road will lead tomorrow.

The Valley’s water problem is not limited solely to a lack of rainfall because of two previous years of drought, but has now grown to become an international issue with mounting tensions on both sides of the Rio Grande River (the U.S.-Mexico International border) as stakeholders in Texas worry over legal rights to a diminishing and precious natural resource and Mexico’s apparent unwillingness to release overdue water owed to the United States according to an existing water treaty.

A “Seminar on Water Rights and Public Policy: The Lower Rio Grande” was an open community meeting staged the Knapp Medical Conference Center moderated by Dr, Guy Fipps, AgriLife Extension irrigation engineer and professor at Texas A&M University-College Station.

The seminar took the form of a planned open-discussion on water issues by a trio of panelists, Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ); Edward Drusina, commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission in El Paso; and Glenn Jarvis, an attorney and chairman of the Rio Grande Regional Water Planning Group in McAllen.

“The last water rights seminar we had in the Lower Rio Grande Valley was about ten years ago,” Fipps told reporters. “While some of the water availability issues remain the same, today’s water supply situation is probably more serious than it was ten years ago.”

Fipps has been staging community water seminars in the Valley since 1991 in hopes of providing information on the complex issue of who owns what water rights on the 900-plus miles of river that divides Texas from Northern Mexico. That question has been an issue between the two nations ever since Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836.

“Our hope is that this seminar would help stakeholders better understand the mechanisms in place and the legal basis for allocation and management of water from this shared resource,” Fipps added, saying there are water obligations required of both nations as well as the water privileges granted to each.

Shortage will be felt

"At this point, we can say there will be irrigation districts that are going to run out of water this year," TCEQ Chairman Shaw told the group. “Municipalities will fall short of having enough water as will industry, including agriculture.”

But International Boundary and Water Commissioner Edward Drusina said he remains “guardedly optimistic” that Mexico may yet release water from reservoirs in an effort to meet their five year cycle water release obligation. State and Valley leaders have complained that Mexico is behind in releasing millions of gallons of water collected on the Rio Conchos River basin in Northern Mexico.

According to a 65-year old water treaty between the two countries, Mexico must release water from the Rio Conchos in exchange for water released from the Pecos River basin by the U.S., but the plan calls for releases that run in five year cycles, meaning Mexico actually has until October of 2015 before releasing their entire water obligation.

But Raymondville Water Treatment Supervisor Javier Rodriguez says the U.S.-Mexico treaty calls for a minimum 350,000 acre-feet release of water each year of the five year cycle, and says the water crisis has reached a stage that those water releases need to happen sooner rather than later.

The City of Raymondville enacted a stage-three emergency water plan early last month and issued strict rules on water use by local residents and businesses.

Drusina says the Valley needs a short-term fix on its immediate water needs, especially since it is traditional planting time for Valley agriculture. Most Valley farmers are delaying planting decisions until they can determine if there will be enough water for irrigation this year to sustain a crop.

Mexico owes the U.S. more than a years worth of water so far.

Fueling concerns of water stakeholders in Texas are reports that Mexico is building additional dams across the border designed to catch more water from the Rio Conchos watershed. Some are openly concerned that perhaps Mexico plans on continuing to deny the U.S the water they owe according to the treaty.

Treaty violations

It wouldn’t be the first time. Treaty violations have been cropping up since a 1907 water treaty, amended in 1944 and 1948, which spawned a number of new water violation allegations. The water problems escalated with years of increased population and development and especially when parts of northern Mexico became an agriculturally-rich area for growing fruit and produce in the early 1990s.

"There is a concern that the construction of additional dams (in Mexico) would make it less likely that they will be releasing water in spite of the treaty," Shaw told the group.

Drusina said he had heard the dams under construction are for flood control and the water that will be trapped by the dams are obligated to water rights holders in Mexico.

So far, a group of South Texas Congressmen and officials from a coalition of local government and a number of irrigation districts have sent letters to officials in Mexico, the International Boundary Water Commission and the U.S. State Department asking for action. Late Monday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn added his voice to encourage officials on both sides of the border to negotiate a water release settlement to avoid a worsening crisis in South Texas.

In his letter to IBWC officials, Cornyn cited a prior water debit issue with Mexico that happened during a ten-year period beginning in 1992. He said the debt at one time totaled some 1.5 million acre-feet of water that was not fully paid until September 2005. The incident was blamed for causing Texas farmers to lose hundreds of millions of dollars during the shortfall, Cornyn writes. He made reference to “sustained negotiations with Mexico” as necessary to bring a conclusion to that water dispute, a measure he is recommending now.

“As it stands now, many farmers have already been put on notice that they will receive only one irrigation this year unless something happens to relieve shrinking reservoirs, and our summer crops just can’t survive on one watering. At this rate, cities across the Valley run the risk of running out of water as well,” said Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Extension agent in Hidalgo County. “We’re running at critically low levels right now.”