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Lawmakers Say Mexico Falling Short on Its End of Water Treaty

A decades-old treaty that mandates how Mexico and the U.S. share water from rivers is once again the genesis of growing frustrations from U.S. landowners and lawmakers.

The Rio Grande is the ending place of many high-speed pursuits. People escape consequences by driving their vehicles into the water and swimming to Mexico.

Sounding the alarm over a 70-year-old treaty that governs the release of water to Texas by Mexican officials, state and federal lawmakers say that Mexico is again falling short on its part of the agreement and that water users in the Rio Grande basin are feeling the impact.

Technically, Mexico is in compliance and has two more years to release the amount covered in the treaty. Lawmakers and stakeholders, limited in what they can do to compel the Mexicans to deliver the water, are turning to the agency tasked with enforcing the treaty to step up its efforts to ensure the required total is delivered.

The Treaty of Feb. 3, 1944 — also called the “Treaty of the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande” — directs Mexico to deliver water to the U.S. from six tributaries that feed into the Rio Grande, in exchange for water from the Colorado River. The Mexican government is required to release 1,750,000 acre-feet of water every five years. (An acre-foot is nearly 326,000 gallons of water.)

Ideally for the U.S., Mexico would deliver an average annual amount of 350,000 acre-feet, but lawmakers say it is more than 350,000 acre-feet behind such a pace in the current five-year cycle, which began in October 2010. In the middle of a continued drought, the lag in delivery has prompted U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to ask the U.S. office of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational agency responsible for enforcing water and boundary treaties, to urge the Mexicans to fulfill their debt.

“This water deficit and the uncertainty about supply harms Texas municipal, industrial, and agricultural irrigation users in the Rio Grande basin who rely on regular, lawful allocations of water,” Cornyn wrote to IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina. “Several of the irrigation districts have recently notified their users that they may not receive all the water deliveries they are entitled to within the next 60 days if additional flows do not occur.”

This is not the first time the U.S. has raised concerns about how Mexico has handled its responsibilities under the treaty. Cornyn said that during a period from 1992 to 2002, Mexico’s debt reached as high as 1.5 million acre-feet, and it was not repaid until 2005. Farmers in the area lost hundreds of millions of dollars, he added. 

Officials at the IBWC said it is aware of the situation and working with Mexican counterparts to resolve the issue.

“We have been coordinating continuously with the Mexican section of the International Boundary and Water Commission to exchange data regarding conditions in the basin and to identify strategies to ensure delivery of water to the U.S. during the current cycle,” said Sally Spener, the foreign affairs officer at the IBWC. “Both countries are very interested in being proactive about this so we do not get in to a situation where we end up with an unmanageable deficit. We’ve had a good information exchange with our Mexican counterparts and are partnering with them so we can address this early in the cycle before it becomes an insurmountable deficit.”

There have been 17 “60-day” letters mailed by local irrigation districts to municipalities in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, warning officials that their irrigation water supplies could be tapped out this spring. It doesn’t mean, however, that the municipalities will necessarily run dry.

Water for domestic, municipal and industrial uses is transported to the region's cities by "riding" with irrigation water, so options to transport this water will have to be explored if levels run too low, said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“It is going to vary on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Such as how far they are from the river and how far they need to move the water and so forth, so that’s why we have been having meetings with the districts and the municipalities to identify options.”

One of those options includes purchasing the “push” water from a different source.

“It’s kind of like where delivery [of goods] was free before, but because of the scarcity of gasoline now you are paying for the gasoline” costs, said state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville. “But cities think we’re not going to have water, which is not true to some extent. We still have enough water to operate. It’s the cost of getting that water.”

Lucio has filed House Concurrent Resolution 55, urging the U.S. State Department and the IBWC to urge Mexico to reconcile its debt.

“I recognize that drought knows no political boundaries and our friends in Mexico suffer just as we do; however, Mexico has an obligation to deliver" the water that belongs to the state, Lucio said in a statement after filing the measure, which has been referred to the House Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs and Trade.

Despite the IBWC's optimism about discussions with Mexico, Cornyn still expressed concerns about major breakthroughs coming soon.

“The challenge is they’ve been experiencing some drought themselves so they may be reluctant to deliver the water but that’s what the IBWC is designed for,” he said during a recent conference call with reporters. “Suffice to say the State Department and the U.S. government does have some other sticks in its toolbox that can be applied here, but my hope Is that carrots work and sticks won’t be necessary.”

He didn’t offer specifics on what carrots or sticks might be used.

While not saying that the treaty should be changed, Lucio did say that he saw little from the Mexicans to show they were going to make good on the current delivery schedule.

Spener said that neither the U.S. nor Mexican government is exploring treaty amendments. But she said that changes to the current treaty are possible through the recording of official minutes, which must be approved by both governments. There are more than 300 recorded minutes, which govern issues like dam construction, funding, operations and other treaty implementations.

“The minute mechanism is a mechanism that we have used in the past to deal with deficits and other issues that arise, so it does give us the ability to work with the treaty to address contemporary needs,” she said.

There is also the chance that heavy rainfall could occur and cancel out the debt. Spener said that a provision of the treaty states that when the U.S. capacity in lakes Amistad and Falcon, the two international reservoirs, fills, the cycle ends. Obligations are then canceled and a new five-year cycle begins. She added, however, that it’s not expected to happen soon.

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