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 second in a three-part series discussing the drought, the treaty and the ramifications for both sides of the border
With two years of ongoing drought and water treaty issues with Mexico, it's no surprise that planted crop acres are down as cattle herds continue to shrink across South Texas. Lawmakers, community leaders, and representatives of business and industry are forced to contemplate the impossible—life on the frontier without enough water to sustain it.
Life in the arid Southwest—especially in the Borderlands—depends on the great river, the Rio Grande as it is known in the north, the Rio Bravo south of the border. For 900-plus miles this ribbon of life-sustaining water runs down the length of the international border separating Texas and Mexico, fed on the U.S. side by the Pecos River that gently flows down the eastern slopes of New Mexico and across West Texas canyon country, converging with the big river at Lake Amistad southwest of San Antonio.
Across the river in Mexico, the land quickly lifts up from the river valley and climbs into the northern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Here, the Rio Conchos River collects rainwater each year in its watershed, which like the watersheds of Texas and New Mexico, is nature’s way of keeping up a constant flow of fresh water to replenish the lonely, silent-running Rio Grande. This long thread of precious water represents the backbone of the region and provides life-giving water for drinking, bathing, building, and growing crops and livestock along the way. Without it, there would be little life, or no life, on the dry frontier.
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But as seasons come and go, so do periods of feast and famine. With two straight years of drought plaguing not only the great American Southwest but also large areas of Northern Mexico, the fight for available water resources is changing attitudes and causing tempers to flare. New Mexico and Texas, for example, are embroiled in Supreme Court litigation even now on how water from the Rio Grande is shared. Mexico and the United States have ongoing arguments over water too, not only in the Rio Grande basin but also over the ebb and flow of water in the Colorado River to the West.
As concerns over water rise in the Texas borderlands and across crop production states of northern Mexico, patience wears thin and fingers begin to point as water stakeholders look for reasons behind their worries, often finding them in the heat and dryness of the moment.
Blame it on treaty non-compliance?
It wasn't that long ago things were different along the border, especially when it came to commercial farming activities. Agriculture was a much larger industry in the Valley. More cotton was planted 30 years ago than in modern times, and the produce and vegetable industry was thriving as trucks originating in South Texas were making their way north and east across interstate highways, providing fresh produce across the nation.
But after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified, things began to change. Agricultural operations began to sprout across the border in northern Mexico. Mexican trucks filled with fruit and produce began streaming across the international bridges to newly constructed processing plants in the Valley. South Texas became more of a crossroads for the international trade of food products and less a food producing region, and some argue it has not been a bad tradeoff.
In recent years some of the largest fruit and produce processing plants and refrigerated storage facilities in the nation have cropped up in South Texas, putting thousands to work and providing a positive impact to the local economy. It has been an arrangement widely accepted by many on both sides of the border, and lauded by some as a workable solution to the changing focus of the border region and the way food is processed and distributed in the changing global market.
While not everyone shares that same vision, most will at least agree that while the landscape of business and agriculture has changed in post-NAFTA years for better or worse, it has gone a long way in bridging the economies and cultures of both nations. While issues like border crime and security continue to threaten the region and the new- found spirit of cooperation and understanding that has developed, there is little question the region has benefited from cross-border commerce partnerships.
That is, until the rains stopped and the river began to dry. Now, some are ready to draw lines in the sand.
NEXT: Part 3: Tempers flare and solutions offered as water crisis boils