While rural residents of the Texas coast worry about and respect the potential for major hurricane landfalls each summer, after three straight years of intense water shortages, many are happy to see a tropical storm system barreling out of the Gulf with landfall expected on the upper Mexican coast that could bring beneficial rains to Deep South Texas this weekend and early next week.
After three years of intense drought and hefty crop and cattle declines, South Texas farmers and ranchers from the Lower Rio Grande Valley and up the coast as far as the Coastal Bend are anxious for heavy rains to bring relief to thirsty soils and to help raise dangerously low reservoir levels across the region.
"There is a potential for up to seven inches of rain on the lower coast and 3-5 inches inland across the Valley depending on where the system moves into the Mexican coastline," says Barry Goldsmith, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Brownsville, Texas, station. "In areas currently saturated and with poor drainage, life and property could be threatened and water levels could reach (up to) 3 feet."
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While Goldsmith admits serious weather poses a risk not only to residents living in low lying areas but also to agricultural operations in South Texas, a series of beneficial rains could go a long way toward replacing soil moisture and recharging low reservoir levels. South Texas suffered serious drought conditions over the last three years and has been stressed by international water treaty issues as well.
State and local officials have complained that Mexico is late meeting its treaty obligation to deliver water to South Texas and say that delay caused serious crop losses and forced culling of cattle herds, creating further hardships related to the extreme dry conditions in recent years.
Earlier this year local irrigation officials, local government and industry leaders, state water representatives and concerned farmers and ranchers gathered in a special meeting to discuss international water treaty issues. While representatives from the U.S. contingent of the International Boundary & Water Commission (IBWC) said negotiations with Mexican officials to release water owed to Texas were ongoing, local farmers and ranchers complained that Mexico was once again waiting to release water until tropical weather conditions developed and brought additional rain to the dry Southwest.
"They like to hold onto all the water they currently have in their many reservoirs up the Rio Conchas (river) in case the tropical season fails to replenish water supplies. But if a tropical storm or hurricane comes up out of the Gulf, then they decide to open up their dams and let the water flow down to us. A lot of that water we would have gotten anyway, so we are still coming up short of what they owe us each year," said Hidalgo County Agent Brad Cowan earlier this year.
Drought relief on its way, one way or another?
He and others argue that when tropical rains saturate the Mexican mountains, the water is going to flow downhill and back to the Rio Grande to replenish reservoirs anyway because Mexican reservoirs are either already full of near full.
"They are relying on Mother Nature to pay their water debt so they don't have to take water out of their reservoirs," one rancher complained, a development correctly predicted earlier this year. Nearly tenth months into the year, Texas officials claim Mexico still owes them millions of gallons of water.
With potentially heavy flooding possible across the mountains of Mexico as a result of the current tropical storm threat, Valley water officials are at least hopeful the runoff into the Rio Grande will help relieve critically low lake levels at both Amistad and Falcon Lake reservoirs. In a best case scenario, ample tropical rains could persuade Mexican officials to release additional water as part of their treaty debt, furthering recharge efforts at Rio Grande reservoirs.
But NWS forecaster Goldsmith warns that not all that glitters is gold. He warns South Texas farmers and ranchers that while the year has been extensively dry, Sept. has so far proven to be the wettest month. Already this month Brownsville has received 6.33 inches of rain, Los Fresnos has received 3.69 inches, McAllen has received 3.25 inches and Harlingen has received a little 2.5 inches.
With 4 to 7 inches of rain possible between now and mid-week, he is alerting ranchers with cattle on farmland that they may have to move them to higher ground if pastures have already been saturated during the past few weeks. In addition, where field conditions allow, last remnants of the Valley cotton harvest are underway in a race with the approaching weather system.
As with most coastal storm systems though, the greatest threat to South Texas remains along the coastline where elevated tides and surf will cause eroding conditions and low-lying fields and orchards could be inundated. High surf and riptide conditions will exist and marine warnings have already been issued. But for the most part, the farm and ranch community of the Valley say they are ready for beneficial rain showers and most are even looking forward to the event with anticipation of relieving moisture that could provide some benefit for next year's crop.
The NWS warns residents of Deep South Texas to take time to clear drainage ditches and canals of cut grasses and other debris that could clog flood drainage systems. Rural residents should be prepared to move livestock out of low lying areas to higher ground by Monday. Flash flood watches are expected later this weekend and into the new week.