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South Texas Irrigation District Running Dry

If current drought conditions persist, farmers in Willacy and Hidalgo counties who receive water from the Delta Lake Irrigation District in South Texas will have to look for other options in June.

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After each day without rain in Texas, Troy Allen's dread of the first week of June grows.

Allen, the general manager of the Delta Lake Irrigation District in Edcouch, says that if current drought conditions persist, he will have bad news for farmers in the area come June 2.

“I am just going to have to cut all my farmers off,” said Allen, who overseas delivery of irrigation water to 70,000 acres of land in Willacy and Hidalgo counties. 

The Delta Lake Irrigation District is one of the largest suppliers of irrigation water in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, with more than 95 percent of the district's water earmarked for that purpose.

Some farmers Allen serves have planned ahead and purchased water from different suppliers, he said. But without rain, those who have not are at the mercy of a foreign government. And millions of dollars of crops this year are at stake.

Under the terms of 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” — Mexico is supposed to deliver water to the U.S. from six Mexican tributaries that feed into the Rio Grande. In turn, the U.S. supplies Mexico with 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.)

But Texas officials say Mexico isn't holding up its end of the treaty.

“We need a renewed commitment by our federal government to insist that Mexico release water belonging to the United States,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in a statement. “This is not just a matter of two countries fighting over limited water. That fight happened decades ago and now we must hold Mexico to the deal to which they and we agreed.”

But the terms of the treaty are open to interpretation. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), a binational agency responsible for enforcing water and boundary treaties, says Mexico is required to release the amount within five years and, in theory, could release the entire debt in the last year of the current cycle, which began in October 2010.

Allen and state officials, including Staples, say Mexico is required to release the water in equal annual allotments — about 350,000 acre-feet per year — unless it is suffering exceptional drought conditions. Staples says Mexico isn't currently facing such conditions.

“We know that Mexico’s portion of the Rio Grande basin that contributes to the treaty’s inflows has not been under exceptional drought conditions since at least May of last year,” he said. “Our perception is that Mexico hasn’t been operating in good faith. I don’t say that flippantly. We recognize they’re our No. 1 trading partner and we’ve got close ties and we want close relationships.”

The Delta Lake customers won’t be the first affected. According to Staples’ office, Cameron County Irrigation District No. 2 notified customers that it would no longer take orders for new water deliveries after April 12.

“This will have catastrophic consequences to crop yields in this district and may result in total crop losses in some instances,” Staples said.

Sally Spener, the foreign affairs officer at the IBWC, said the office is working with its Mexican counterparts and is urging them to comply. The agency has become a target of statewide officials, including Staples and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who have insisted that the IBWC apply more pressure to the U.S. State Department and the Mexican government. Gov. Rick Perry has gone a step further, alleging that the State Department was leaving Texans to deal with an international issue without federal help.

But Spener said the treaty and the water flows are often misinterpreted.

“There is continual water that is being delivered to the United States under the 1944 water treaty. There is a misconception that either the faucet is on or it’s off, either there is a delivery or there isn’t,” she said. “It’s not like there is a wall at the confluence of those six rivers that prevents any water from flowing in to the Rio Grande, so there is always water that is credited to the United States as long as there is water flowing from the tributaries.”

Some of those tributaries are dry, but Mexico has plenty of water in its own reservoirs, Allen said, after strategically damming up water within its borders.

Spener said that while the U.S. believes Mexico should be releasing water from these reservoirs and should set aside water for delivery to the U.S., Mexico has not done so.  Instead, Mexico has generally relied on runoff to make deliveries.

“What we have requested is they release water from their dams specifically for the purpose of delivering water to the United States,” she said.

The treaty can be amended under what is known as the “minute mechanism,” in which language is added or changed to reflect current actions. A minute dated March 2001, for example, dealt with the release of water from Mexico to the U.S. under the fourth year of that cycle.

Allen said he didn’t think abolishing the treaty outright was the right move — at least not now.

“I don’t think it’s a good deal for the U.S., but I do think we need to have better teeth than how the treaty is written to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

So far, lawmakers have not said whether they will consider amending the treaty.

Municipalities in Texas, though running low, aren’t at risk of running out of water, Allen said. Their water levels are replenished annually, and if they run low, cities and towns can purchase additional water from other districts.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the IBWC believes Mexico should release water from its reservoirs when deliveries from the Mexican tributaries is insufficient.  

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