EDITOR'S NOTE: Drought has bedeviled South Texas farms, ranches and citrus groves relentlessly for the past few years, taking significant chunks out of local economies, threatening industries, municipalities and residents of the Lower Rio Grande valley. Complicating the issue has been a disagreement over Mexico’s obligation to deliver water to the region as mandated by a 1944 water treaty. Following is the first in a three-part series discussing the drought, the treaty and the ramifications for both sides of the border.
Tough times call for tough actions. That’s what many Rio Grande Valley lawmakers, farmers, ranchers, irrigation district and community officials and business leaders are saying this summer as extreme drought conditions dry up water reserves, reduce profits and continue to plague residents and businesses in Deep South Texas.
To make things even tougher, Valley leaders say the current trouble can't be blamed solely on Mother Nature, but also on Mexican water officials who many say have failed to deliver water due South Texas according to a 1944 water treaty.
The implications and aggravation of the spiraling water shortage in the border region represents the latest in growing tensions between the people and cultures of two nations who have made great strides in recent years to reach across historical, social and economic differences to build a new coalition and cross-cultural community designed to benefit local residents regardless of which country they live or work.
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Gone are the days when a visit to a Mexican border town was limited to a walk across the bridge for lunch or cocktails and a quick visit to the local market square to purchase inexpensive curios. Since the early days of NAFTA, interest in tourism has spiked on both sides of the Rio Grande. American and Mexican citizens stream across international bridges by the thousands every day headed in both directions to shop; to bank; to attend schools, universities and concerts; to enjoy restaurants and shopping malls; and in a growing number of cases, to conduct international business in a vibrant exchange of culture and new border custom.
While much of America has expressed concern in recent years over ongoing immigration and border issues, a trip to the Valley in recent times painted a very different picture. The region is now a dual-nation free trade zone where international commerce moves in both directions, providing exchanges of business and culture to benefit all borderland residents. It is the "new norm" for the South Texas frontier, a place with a new spirit of unity - a tie that binds together a region that is diverse in culture and transforms it into an economically viable and profitable relationship.
Wading into water woes
But water shortages can turn a comfortable and profitable experience into a nightmare. On the Texas side, residents are wondering why water restrictions are causing their lawns to suffer and in some cases die while industrial and commercial water users, like golf courses and swimming pools, remain green and open; some are asking why irrigation districts are providing farms and industry with water when communities are running low on natural resources.
In the Valley, the water shortage is stirring up a great deal of emotion and creating hardships for some residents while becoming the hot topic item for community leaders and local lawmakers. And the situation is getting more critical. Communities are being told the water crisis could force city water departments to run out of water before summer's end. Businesses and residents are already limited to hours of use, and most find themselves at various stages of ever-changing local water conversation initiatives.
And it is not just South Texas cities and residents that are being affected by the water emergency. Perhaps hardest hit are agricultural interests—farmers, ranchers, and citrus growers.
Drought conditions from last season were still prevalent at planting time for the Valley's cotton, corn, grain sorghum, sugar and vegetable crops this last winter, preventing many farmers from even attempting to put seed into the parched ground. Crops normally planted on dryland fields are practically non-existent in parts of South Texas, and even many irrigated fields are short of the necessary water to bring a healthy crop to harvest.
According to an economic impact analysis released last week—initiated by Texas AgriLife officials as a direct result of the water crisis—irrigation shortages in the Valley could roll up nearly $400 million in crop and livestock losses this year and could cut nearly 5,000 jobs from the local economy, a devastating development.
Water concerns are building as summer days grow warmer every week. Rain showers have failed to provide any real relief, so water concerns continue to grow in Deep South Texas. There has even been talk about acts of civil disobedience such as blocking international bridges in hopes of bringing attention to the escalating water crisis.
Watch for PART II: South Texas water crisis is drawing a line in the sand