Barrera: Mexico must pay its water debt

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is suffering the effects of extreme drought from two sources: natural and manmade.

There’s not much that can be done about a lack of rainfall, but when drought is exacerbated by political decisions, something can and should be done.

A good time to start is when President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City on Thursday.

Mexico is once again failing to comply with treaty provisions governing equitable water-sharing in the Rio Grande basin, despite the fact that it has more than sufficient supplies held behind dams in northwestern Mexico. Under terms of a 1944 treaty, Mexico is supposed to release water from its side of the Rio Grande into that waterway for use by the U.S. — specifically, a minimum average of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually for use by South Texas.

The same treaty also apportions waters in the Colorado River basin between western U.S. states and Mexico. While the U.S. has always — without fail — met its annual requirements in the Colorado, historically, and particularly in times of low rainfall, Mexico has repeatedly not lived up to its end of the deal. It has consistently failed to provide the minimum annual inflows into the Rio Grande required under the treaty.

While much of Texas is in extreme drought conditions, Mexico’s portion of the Rio Grande Basin that contributes water to the Rio Grande River, as per treaty, has not been since May 2012.

Currently, Mexico owes a water debt to Texas of more than 400,000 acre-feet of water, enough to meet all municipal demand in the Valley for about a year and a half.

The burden of this significant deficit falls first on irrigated agriculture. Already, several irrigation districts in the Valley have had to shut off their deliveries from the Rio Grande to producers, severely impacting an important economic pillar of the region.

But even municipal supplies are threatened. Most cities and towns rely on the irrigation canals to move their water from the river to treatment plants. Curtailing irrigation water means that flows for municipalities, which are normally conveyed with larger volumes of irrigation water, lack the necessary “pushwater” to propel supplies to their destination.

Less than four months into 2013, more than a dozen municipal water suppliers have been notified that lack of pushwater may curtail their water deliveries. To make things worse, Mexico has formal plans to build more dams on Mexican tributaries leading to the Rio Grande, further curtailing water deliveries.

Ten years ago, the Valley suffered through the same problem until a hurricane filled up the reservoirs on the Rio Grande and Mexico was off the hook. We cannot count on rain — in whatever form — to resolve the real need for Mexico to properly manage and account for all users of water resources covered by the treaty, including water users in Texas.

We call on Obama and the U.S. State Department and its International Boundary and Water Commission to secure Mexico’s compliance with the 1944 Treaty.

The health, welfare, and economic stability of the Lower Rio Grande Valley are at stake.

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