Rights War Rages On Faltering Rio Grande
CHICA, Tex., April 17 - On a desolate stretch of beach
on the border with Mexico, Randy Blankinship steps along
what should be the edge of the Rio Grande. Except there
is only sand. The river that for thousands of years
flowed into the Gulf of Mexico now falls almost a hundred
the mouth of the mighty Rio Grande," said Mr. Blankinship,
a state wildlife biologist, with a touch of sarcasm.
He knows the joke that the sandbar is the newest international
bridge into Mexico. Apparently the Border Patrol is
not laughing - an agent is parked nearby.
the Rio Grande is no longer strong enough to reach the
sea is just another example of the crisis that threatens
the river and the international region that depends
on it. Years of drought have left the area parched.
A water war between farmers on both sides of the border
has escalated into an international standoff.
for water is increasing in an area that has historically
ranked among the poorest in the nation but is now trying
to capitalize on growing trade with Mexico. Population
is exploding on both sides of the border as new industries
have been established in the past decade.
the longest period of time, the Rio Grande Valley has
had a water policy in which we hope and pray for a moderate-sized
hurricane every 8 to 10 years that would bypass the
Valley, land in the watershed and dump in the reservoir,"
said Judge Gilberto Hinojosa of Cameron County, the
highest elected official in the county, which includes
Brownsville. "That isn't a water policy."
water shortages are familiar throughout the nation,
the problem here is compounded by the complicated codependence
of Mexico and the United States. The primary tributary
of the Rio Grande is the Rio Conchos, which flows out
of the high desert of Mexico and fills the reservoirs
that provide water for American farmers. Under a 1944
treaty, Mexico is supposed to send about 350,000 acre-feet
water annually into the Rio Grande, or billions of gallons.
The United States, in turn, releases 1.5 million acre-feet
of Colorado River water to Mexico. (An acre-foot is
about 326,000 gallons.)
since 1992, Mexico has fallen more than 1.5 million
acre-feet of water in arrears, infuriating Rio Grande
Valley farmers. Last month, farmers hoped for a breakthrough
when President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico
met in Monterrey. American farmers, joined by Gov. Rick
Perry of Texas, had held a rally to attract attention
to their plight. But the summit came and went without
even a news release on the issue.
Mexico to come to the table to meet is almost impossible,"
said Tudor Uhlhorn, a third-generation farmer with six
farms in Cameron County, voicing a frustration held
by many American farmers. "They just delay, delay,
the American side of the river, farmers have just finished
spring planting and, in many cases, either have had
to reduce the acreage planted or are simply hoping for
rain. In one of Mr. Uhlhorn's sorghum fields, he bent
over and dug in the dirt until he found a tiny red seed.
Usually, he would irrigate this field and the seed would
have already grown into a small plant. But with the
local reservoirs at about 30 percent of capacity, there
is not enough water for him to fully irrigate.
Uhlhorn's anger and frustration are pointed directly
at Mexico's failure to release the water required by
treaty. Suspicions are so great on the American side
that officials talk of infrared satellite images showing
water in Mexican reservoirs. Other officials who have
visited Mexico believe the country is simply hoarding
water as it develops its own irrigated farmland in the
Rio Conchos valley.
drought that we're in, that is causing a shortage of
water for irrigated farmers, is an act of man, not an
act of God," Mr. Uhlhorn said.
study by a Texas A&M University agricultural economist
placed the economic losses in the Rio Grande Valley
at nearly $1 billion since 1992, when Mexico first began
failing to deliver the allotted water.
Alberto Szekely, the Mexican government official handling
the water issue, said that Mexico was not releasing
water because there was none to release.
truth of the matter is that our dams are practically
empty," Mr. Szekely said. "We have lost 81
percent of our storage capacity."
Szekely said that the treaty granted leniency during
"extraordinary drought," and that the Mexican
government was already moving to modernize and improve
infrastructure in the Rio Conchos basin to reduce waste.
"No water treaty can demand a country to deliver
water that doesn't exist," he said.
Kelly, an environmentalist with the Texas Center for
Policy Studies, a group heavily involved in state water
issues, has angered many American farmers by agreeing
that Mexico is not currently able to repay its debt.
The biggest reservoir on the Rio Conchos is only 25
percent full, Ms. Kelly said, while another is at 10
is just no way that they are able to release 1.5 million
acre-feet of water," Ms. Kelly said, adding, "The
larger issue is that this drought has shown us that
we do not have a plan to manage the river in times of
municipalities in the Rio Grande Valley are not threatened
with shortages because their needs are met before those
of the farmers. Judge Hinojosa also noted that the area's
irrigation system of dirt and concrete canals was wasteful
and outdated but that farmers could not afford to update
to more modern methods.
problem here is money," he said. "You need
to have the federal government and the state government
at the beach where the Rio Grande once spilled into
the sea, Mr. Blankinship said environmental problems
were already emerging. By blocking the river from the
sea, the sandbar has choked off the estuary that is
the breeding grounds for innumerable species. He said
early studies showed that populations of white shrimp
and striped mullet have been severely affected.
reduced water flow has also allowed vegetation like
water hyacinth and hydrilla to grow exponentially along
the Rio Grande. Usually, the current would flush such
vegetation away, but now it is clogging some sections
of the river.
is a big deal, the loss of an estuary like this,"
Mr. Blankinship said, pointing to the shallow end of
the river. "And it is a bad omen for the future
of the Rio Grande to see international water policy
result in this."