In late September, the Rio Grande Valley hardly looks short on water. Sugarcane fields are electric green against a mottled gray sky, threatening a downpour. Orange groves are heavy with fruit. At Mike England’s five-thousand-acre farm in Mercedes, about twenty miles east of McAllen, Brahman cattle lumber through muddy paddocks.
But even when rain leaves the Valley lush, England says, farmers can still face serious, income-threatening water problems. To supply crops with consistent moisture in a semiarid region, they need at the ready lots of irrigation water, which is stored in two international reservoirs straddling the border on the Rio Grande, Amistad and Falcon. Under a 1944 binational treaty, Mexico is supposed to send 350,000 acre-feet of water via the Rio Grande annually to the United States, which helps replenish the reservoirs. (In exchange, the U.S. sends 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year to Mexico via the Colorado River, the one that drains several western states.) But by late September, Mexico—faced with protests from its own water-stressed farmers—had sent less than half the water it owes this year, and the country may miss its five-year deadline come October 24.
Under the treaty, Mexico can miss sending its annual share as long as it sends 1.75 million acre-feet within five years. Even that deadline is fungible, since Mexico, if it’s experiencing extraordinary drought, can roll over its water debt at the end of a five-year cycle into the next cycle. But it cannot do that for two cycles in a row, and since the water owed by 2015 was rolled over into the current cycle, this year’s October deadline is supposed to be hard and fast.
The Amistad reservoir is only 36.3 percent full and Falcon sits at 21.4 percent of its full capacity, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which oversees the treaty. Valley farmers are in trouble. If Mexico fails to replenish the reservoirs, farmers in the region will have to drastically reduce how much they plant, says Brian Jones, who grows cotton, corn, and grain sorghum in Edcouch, forty minutes northeast of McAllen. He estimates that farmers have lost about $200 an acre—several hundred thousand dollars a year for an average-sized Valley farm—when they have been undersupplied with irrigation water in the past. England grumbles that he’s already lost money this year because Mexico hasn’t released much of its annual share. He’s spent $50,000 on high-priced water from the reservoir because supplies of lower-priced water were too low.
The water treaty does not impose sanctions for noncompliance and has no enforcement mechanism, so Texas leaders have started petitioning the U.S. government to apply pressure on Mexico to abide. In September, Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointing out that Mexico still had nearly 1.2 million acre-feet of water in its reservoirs and that Texas needs the amount it is owed to “irrigate crops, supply water to municipalities, and conduct industrial operations along the Rio Grande.” U.S. representative Henry Cuellar, who represents a large swath of the RGV, says he will send his own letter to Pompeo and reach out to the IBWC. The U.S. and Mexico should “sit down and talk about” creating some kind of enforcement mechanism, he says, or “we’re going to be talking about this for the next twenty years or so.”
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for his part, has insisted that Mexico will comply with its obligations under the treaty. But he is facing unprecedented resistance. In September, thousands of Mexican farmers took over La Boquilla dam in the border state of Chihuahua, prompting the retreat of a unit of Mexico’s National Guard, and two weeks later, the farmers were still holding it.
Farmers in Chihuahua say they understand U.S. concerns and don’t object to water sharing under the treaty. “But we need more time,” says Salvador Alcantar, who leads Chihuahua’s irrigation users’ association. The farmers want to roll over their water debt from this cycle into the next cycle. Valley farmers say that with their reservoirs already low, they need the water now.
Since the IBWC started keeping track of Mexico’s water deliveries in the 1950s, the country has missed its five-year deadline four times—and three times since the nineties. Phillip King, an expert on the Rio Grande at New Mexico State University, says that the water dispute has grown increasingly complex in recent decades. When the treaty was written, with the intention of fairly distributing contested water from the Rio Grande and the Colorado River between Mexico and the United States, there was little development in Chihuahua. But the passage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and the newly opened U.S. market drew water-hungry agriculture to the Mexican state. Now a warming climate has also reduced the amount of runoff from the Sierra Madre, which feeds the Rio Grande, and new irrigation techniques let less water run off the fields and return to the river. “The treaty is still based on these 1940s conditions that simply no longer exist hydrologically or agriculturally,” King says. “It’s simply not going to work in our current conditions.”
Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. section of the IBWC, says the U.S. believes that Mexico has enough water to meet its deadline for turning over the 1.75 million acre-feet. In addition to sending water from Mexican tributaries and reservoirs, Mexico could just turn over more of the water already in the reservoirs, which is divided between the two countries, to the United States. But regardless of the potential solutions, enforcement is difficult without the threat of sanctions.
“Mexico’s strategy is to just wait and hope a monsoon fills the reservoirs for them,” says Sonny Hinojosa, general manager for Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2, near McAllen. “There’s nothing we can do. We have to rely on our [federal] government officials to force Mexico” through diplomatic pressure.
Trying to get U.S. officials to exert pressure has been a struggle for Valley farmers for years. Dale Murden, a citrus farmer and president of the Texas citrus growers’ association, talked at length about the farmers’ efforts as we drove to see orange groves on the outskirts of Mission. Around the turn of the century, he says, he and other Valley farmers traveled to Washington, D.C., with Texas officials to try to persuade the U.S. State Department to support their campaign to get Mexico to make more timely water deliveries. At a meeting, Susan Combs, Texas agriculture commissioner at the time, showed State Department officials a satellite photo of a green oasis in the middle of Chihuahua. “They took a desert, and used our water to build an agricultural heaven,” Murden says, recalling the meeting. England, who went on the trip, says officials were “fired up” to help the Valley farmers. But then a big storm blew in, filled up the reservoir, and ended the crisis that might have been a catalyst for change.
In the early 2000s, England and Jones went on another D.C. trip, arranged with the help of then-senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Again, the Valley farmers met with State Department officials, but this time, Jones says, the officials suggested that RGV problems were not important compared with the stakes in a free trade treaty involving three nations. “They said, “Well, isn’t this a local problem?’ And I said, ‘Respectfully, if this was a local problem I wouldn’t have to fly all the way up here and go through two metal detectors to sit in this office.’”
After that, the Valley farmers haven’t bothered returning to Washington, D.C.
This year, the longstanding water conflict seems to be boiling over. In September, thousands of farmers and other residents dependent on agriculture for their living swarmed over La Boquilla in the state of Chihuahua in an attempt to take over the dam so that its water could not be released to the United States. A Mexican National Guard unit was deployed against the protesters, but farmers succeeded in occupying the dam and forcing the troops into retreat. By early October, hundreds of protesters were still holding the dam, replacing each other in shifts.
“If the government sends our water to the United States, we will have less than half of what we need for the next year,” says a Chihuahua walnut grower who took part in the protests and asked that his name not be used. “That will affect fourteen towns and a half million people.”
If the Mexican farmers prevail, the options for the U.S. are not clear. In response to a question about leverage the U.S. could apply, the IBWC’s Spener said that query is premature, because Mexico continues to promise it will make good on its obligations. But ultimately, says Luis Ribera, director of Texas A&M University’s Center for North American Studies, the U.S. and Mexico need to come up with a new way to divvy up water, given increased development on both sides of the border. The center has suggested a “Dry Year Option Program,” in which public funds would be used to compensate growers for producing fewer water-intensive crops—fruit, vegetables, and sugarcane—and growing less profitable ones, including cotton and sorghum, which do not need to be irrigated. But then the U.S. would have to persuade Mexico to do the same thing with its farmers. “There’s not an easy solution,” Ribera says. “There are livelihoods at stake on both sides of the border.”