South Texas is facing a water shortage, and farmers say Mexico is to blame

Farmers on the U.S. side of the border said that Mexico is a bad neighbor when it comes to sharing river water.
The Rio Grande Valley
Posted at 12:04 PM, May 02, 2024

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the richest farming areas of Texas. The climate allows for raising crops year-round.

But now the valley is running dry, and agriculture is hurting. While the region is not technically in a drought, the spigot from the river has been cinched due to the interpretation of an 80-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

The majority of the valley's farmers lean on irrigation to raise their crops — water from the Rio Grande pumped and shunted up canals further inland. The river, which forms the natural border between the two countries, amounts to the nourishing resource that supports people and economies on both sides.

But farmers on the U.S. side say that when it comes to sharing the river water, Mexico is being a bad neighbor.

"It's shorter this year," said fourth-generation farmer Brian Jones, as he looked out on his acreage of milo, also known as grain sorghum. Farmers raise milo and sell it primarily as cattle feed. It's resilient in drought conditions and hot summers, but it won't make Jones as much money — he'd rather plant corn destined for dinner plates as tortillas or chips, that would sprout higher value.

"I don't have the water," Jones said. "I've been farming for 38 years myself, and this is the first year that I have zero irrigation water."

Jones, who is also a district director for the Texas Farm Bureau, can't rely alone on Mother Nature showering his crops from the skies; he needs river irrigation.

"Our watershed is in the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico, and feeds the Rio Grande."

Jones says water in the valley is drying up. The two major reservoirs in the region are at record-low levels. Less water means less crops, which normally can be produced here year-round.

"Water that was going to be shared between Mexico and Texas. You know, Texas is supposed to get a third of the runoff, meaning Mexico gets two-thirds," Jones said.

The dearth of Mexican water delivery has caused the permanent shutdown of the region's sugar mill, resulting in roughly 150 jobs lost, as well as hundreds of other seasonal job opportunities. The size of the mill's 300-acre campus is proportional to the economic impact felt by its loss, which the chairman of the mill's board says is around $140 million a year.

"In February, when the decision was made to close the mill, we plowed out the cane because there was no reason to keep the cane," said farmer and Rio Grande Sugar Growers Board Chairman Tudor Uhlhorn.

It has to do with an 80-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Mexico. According to the Water Treaty of 1944, every five years the U.S. delivers 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to Mexico. In return, Mexico delivers 1.75 million acre-feet of water from the Rio Grande to the U.S. Uhlhorn said Mexico has skirted its treaty obligation, and that's why sugarcane growers busted their crops and voted to shut down the mill. The economics didn't work.

"It was a decision that was made for us," Uhlhorn said, "because without water from Mexico, fulfilling their obligations under the treaty, it finally got to the point where there wasn't enough water to irrigate the crop."

The International Boundary and Water Commission is the binational body which enforces the treaty. IBWC spokesman Frank Fisher told Scripps News it remains concerned that Mexico is behind on its obligations, but that our neighbor to the south intends "to meet their treaty obligations to deliver water." But Fisher added, "a plan has not been shared with the U.S."

The Mexican counterpart, CILA, referred our questions back to the IBWC, but a CILA official told the Texas Tribune "our intention is to mitigate that deficit as much as possible."

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Farmers we spoke to in Texas suspect Mexico is keeping the water to feed its own growing agriculture economy, and so do some people on the U.S. side who run irrigation management districts.

"Mexico's capturing all that water, using it, and it's not allowing flows into the Rio Grande like they used to," said Sonny Hinjosa, an adviser to the Hidalgo County Irrigation District #2.

Hinojosa showed us one of the pumping stations which use electric turbines to push water to irrigation canals. "Right now we would probably be running five, maybe six pumps. We're running two," Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa, who has made his life's work water resource management, says Mexico has a water debt.

"So we're in the fourth year of this five-year cycle, and Mexico is behind 838,000 acre-feet," he said.

Brian Jones, as a policy advocate, joined a delegation to meet with congressional leaders as well as executive branch officials earlier in April.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council told Scripps News that senior officials continue to raise the water treaty issue with their Mexican counterparts. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Scripps News that it is urging Mexico's foreign ministry to sign a new water agreement, which it believes will "avoid the recurring crises at the end of the five-year water cycles" spelled out in the treaty.

One of Rio Grande Valley's congressmen thinks the flow of water will get plugged up in politics.

"There is a presidential election not only in the U.S., but one in Mexico. And I think Mexico is not going to take any tough positions," said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Texas' 28th Congressional District, which is largely affected by the issue.

"It's a complicated dance that we have to do with them (Mexico) when it comes to diplomacy. But we gotta come up with a solution," Rep. Cuellar said.

Brian Jones said he doesn't have time for dancing or diplomacy.

"We need the state of Texas to step up and to start applying more pressure to the U.S. government," said Jones.

That may be a tough ask, considering the Lone Star State is often at loggerheads with the federal government in the courts on just about everything from immigration to gun laws. But getting something done for farmers is managing to get something that seems like a mirage these days: bipartisan cooperation.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Texas have spoken to the secretary of state urging him to pressure Mexico. But with presidential campaigns going on in both countries as well as diplomatic negotiations to clamp down on unauthorized migrant crossings through Mexico into the U.S., water rights may be taking a back seat.