Editor's Note: The following was written about the dispute between the United States and Mexico over Mexico's failure to provide agreed to amounts of water to the Rio Grande Valley.
What kind of a treaty is this?
I just don’t get it. Two sovereign nations agree to share water from the river that defines their border. They build reservoirs to store water and infrastructure (canals, etc.,) to move it from one place to another. One nation agrees to provide more than 1.5 million acre-feet per year from another reservoir, a good ways north of the border and less vulnerable to arid conditions that exist along the river basin, in exchange for a paltry 350,000 acre-feet per year from their neighbor.
Giving the devil his due, that could be a good deal for both countries – if the 350,000 acre-feet we get in exchange for the 1.5 million acre-feet goes to an area where it’s needed desperately and if it’s a lead pipe cinch we get that much every year.
That’s where this treaty, the 1944-Mexican American Water Treaty, falls apart like a sand castle at high tide. Farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, on the Texas side, desperately need the 350,000 acre-feet of water they’re supposed to get from Mexico every year. Cotton, grain sorghum, citrus and vegetable production depends on that water. The livelihoods of the farmers growing those crops also depend on that water being available. So do countless businesses, industries and communities.
From the outset, the 1.5 million acre-feet from the United States streamed into Mexico without fail. The flow from Mexico dried up in 1992. Currently, Mexico is 1.5 million acre-feet in arrears and seems unwilling to make even token attempts at reducing their obligation.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Recently, Mexico agreed to release 90,000 acre-feet of water to South Texas, hardly spit in the ocean compared to the overall debt, but even that agreement comes with a bailout clause. If the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which apparently has seized control of the Mexican Government, at least in water negotiations, does not have adequate rainfall to replace the 90,000 acre-feet, which they owe to Texas, the United States will replace an amount to make up the difference.
What kind of deal is that? I don’t think I’d want whoever is negotiating these agreements for the United States to represent me in a divorce proceeding. I could never be sure that any property I managed to hold onto would still be in my possession a month later.
It makes no sense, especially when farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have watched irrigated acreage shrink more than 50 percent in the past three years, because they can’t be certain they’ll have enough water to run the systems.
Folks who understand the intricacies of this treaty a lot better than I do, say it was flawed from the outset. It includes no definition of severe drought and what, if anything, each party will do in case of water shortage. Currently, during a shortage Texas cuts back and tries to conserve. Apparently, Mexico has expanded irrigated acreage far beyond the capacity to guarantee the water.
And Mexico is asking the United States for financial assistance to improve irrigation efficiency so they’ll be able to repay their water debt. I’d bet on them getting it. I’d also bet on improvements not making one sprinkle of difference unless the treaty is changed to provide some enforcement strategies and a better understanding of each party’s obligations.
A water treaty with Mexico is in the best interests of both countries. It makes perfect sense to develop a workable plan to share a common resource, especially a resource that’s as important as the Rio Grande and as capricious. But it’s time for someone in authority on this side of the border to step up and demand better communication between the two countries. It’s time to plug up the holes in this treaty.
Ron Smith is editor of Southwest Farm Press.