Pressure by U.S. and Texas lawmakers and water officials has drawn a response from Mexico, a release of an estimated 7,000 acre-feet of water from Mexico’s La Fragua dam/reservoir. But Rio Grande Valley water officials charge such a limited release is little more than a slap in the face and will provide no relief for communities and farmers who are currently facing critical water shortages.
International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) spokeswoman Sally Spener in El Paso says they are still trying to determine the exact amount of water released late last week. But Sonia Lambert, general manager of the San Benito Irrigation District, says the district estimates the release to be about 2.3 billion gallons, a “very small amount” of water for use in the Valley.
Officials say that may sound like a lot of water, but an acre-foot of water is only enough to cover one acre of land to a one-foot depth of irrigated water. In the case of 7,000 acre-feet of released water, that would provide only about two inches of irrigated water for 42,000 acres. The Valley currently has about 63,000 acres of cotton planted this year, and that represents only one type of crop. The Valley commercially grows cotton, corn, grain sorghum, sugar cane, assorted types of vegetables, the state’s commercial production of oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes, and specialty crops like pecans and other fruits and nuts.
Slap in the face
The total number of planted acres for all commercial agriculture in the Valley exceeds several million.
“This is just a slap in the face,” Lambert says of the water release, and adds that the release was made without providing adequate notice to water districts and users, meaning most of the water released was wasted because “no one knew it was coming.”
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Officials with the Rio Grande Watermaster Program, a division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the sudden release of water from La Fragua dam in Coahuila was not coordinated with U.S. or Texas officials or with Valley irrigation districts. The program’s Erasmo Yarrito, Jr., says the unexpected release prevented officials on this side of the border to stop releasing water from Falcon Dam, one of two reservoirs upriver from the Valley, so Mexico’s water had passed before it could be allocated to water districts across the Valley.
“We can only benefit from those releases when we can reduce the amount of water coming out of Falcon dam,” Yarrito said.
On April 10, representatives of cities across the Valley, officials from a number of Valley irrigation districts and farmers and ranchers across the region filed into a video conference meeting in Mercedes with IBWC officials over the release and other Valley water issues. Termed the Lower Rio Grande Citizens Forum, the meeting was marked by emotional outbursts from many Valley representatives to IBWC’s Spener, who told those gathered through a video screen that the IBWC is continuing efforts to negotiate with their Mexican counterparts about water woes in the Valley.
Spener said representatives of the U.S. contingent of the bi-national IBWC are in “constant communication” with their Mexican counterparts, but she admitted the U.S. has no enforcement power over what Mexico does.
According to a 1944 water treaty, Mexico is required to release 1.75 million acre-feet of water to the U.S. over a five year cycle. Many water officials in the U.S. say that means Mexico should deliver a minimum of 350,000 acre-feet of water per year. But IBWC officials say that is unclear, pointing out the agreement calls for a five year delivery period without specifying exact release numbers per year.
So far, Mexico has released an estimated 400,000 acre-feet of water in the current cycle, which began in Oct. of 2010 and ends in Oct. of 2015. U.S. and Texas officials point out that just about half way through the five-year cycle, Mexico has released less than 23 percent of its water obligation. But Spener says the United States can not legally claim Mexico has failed to meet the terms of the treaty until after the five-year cycle ends, a position that is not popular with officials on this side of the border.
Of the two surface reservoirs that provide water to the Valley, Falcon Lake is currently at 21 percent and Lake Amistad is at 31 percent of capacity. Valley irrigation district officials say the time is quickly approaching when neither Valley farmers nor ranchers will have any water allocations remaining, and even municipalities will need to purchase water from other sources.