By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Along the Rio Grande River in Texas, the covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic slowdown are major concerns, but not nearly as worrying for local farmers as the impending water crisis.
The Rio Grande farmers produce nearly $500 million in foodstuffs each year, making the Rio Grande Valley (technically, it is not a valley, but a sprawling expanse across a southern stretch of the Lone Star State, comprised of four counties: Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy) the epicenter of Texas’ $900 million per year produce industry.
The region is one of the state’s most reliable suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables, known for it watermelon, grapefruit, oranges, lemons and onions.
And Rio Grande farmers depend heavily on river water for both irrigation of their 500,000 acres of cropland and drinking.
But lately there is a growing concern over access to that water.
Drought and low water-storage levels at the upstream Falcon Lake and Amistad reservoirs had led to reduced water allocations for some downstream users, and some corn, cotton, sorghum and vegetables are already seeing their crops effected.
The situation has gotten so grave that some farmers have been forced to buy water from other districts in order to irrigate their crops.
At the root of the problem is Mexico, which has been slack about fulfilling its water deliveries obligations set down in a binational water treaty dating from 1944.
Under the terms of that treaty, Mexico is required to turn over 1.75 million acre-feet of water to the United States every five years through the Conchos River and other tributaries to the Rio Grande.
In turn, the United States is required to provide 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River for Mexican growers along the Pacific Coast. (The United States has always kept its end of the bargain.)
Mexico is allowed to provide the water it owes on a piecemeal basis, but has for the last 10 years failed to meet its quota (there is a one-time rollover clause in the treaty in case of droughts), and in late October, its decade-long water debt will come due in full, with no possibility for a second extension.
The U.S. Boundary and Water Commission has been pushing the Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) administration to pay up, but so far, Mexico has only responded with a token 40,000 acre-feet installment.
As of now, Mexico still owes some 372,000 acre-feet in water to the United States.
The growing water shortage is also taking a toll on the southern side of the border in the state of Chihuahua, where local farmers are demanding that the federal government renege on the 76-year-old treaty and keep the nation’s water supply at home.
Their demands have been echoed by the state’s opposition National Action Party (PAN) governor, Javier Corral Jurado, who is pressuring the federal government to refuse to release the water.
AMLO, who has so far in his 21-month term maintained good relations with the United States, but who also has his own vision of a Mexico-first policy, has been caught in the middle, trying to assure all parties that there will be enough water for everyone.
Recent analysts by independent international water experts indicate that that is not the case, which means that sooner or later, someone will go without water.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking for Mexico to meet its water debt to the United States, or face the wrath of an angry Donald Trump in an election year.
Mexico is counting on the hurricane season to resolve the issue, hedges itws bet that heavy rains will fill up both its own reservoirs and those of the Rio Grande Valley to neutralize the water shortage.
If that does not happen, the crisis could explode into a major bilateral confrontation