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Rio Grande Water Rights Dry*

April 19, 2002

Water Rights War Rages on Faltering Rio Grande


OCA 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 yards short.

"That's 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.

That 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.

Demand 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.

"For 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."

If 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.)

But 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.

"Getting 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, delay."

On 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.

Mr. 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.

"The 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.

One 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.

But Alberto Szekely, the Mexican government official handling the water issue, said that Mexico was not releasing water because there was none to release.

"The truth of the matter is that our dams are practically empty," Mr. Szekely said. "We have lost 81 percent of our storage capacity."

Mr. 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.

Mary 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 percent.

"There 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 drought."

Currently, 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.

"The problem here is money," he said. "You need to have the federal government and the state government step in."

Here 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.

The 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.

"This 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."

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