While it does not solve dire drought conditions for Rio Grande Valley farmers or problems associated with an international water dispute between Mexico and the United States, water is once again rapidly running down the lower Rio Grande River -- at least for the next few days -- bringing some relief to parched South Texas cities and irrigation districts.
Water levels in the lower river are near flood stage this week in fact, but Texas and U.S. officials are quick to point out the emergency release of waters upstream does not affect water owed by Mexico according to a treaty agreement, and the increased flow will not bring any real lasting benefit to farmers and ranchers in South Texas.
Meanwhile, pressure continues to build on U.S. officials who are being encouraged to step up the pressure on Mexico to secure the release of additional water Texas and Rio Grande Valley officials say is owed to the United States according to the terms of a 1944 Water Treaty between the two nations.
The Texas House of Representatives voted formally last week to petition the State Department to step up their efforts to pressure Mexican officials to release water from reservoirs in Northern Mexico as guaranteed by the treaty. The group joins U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a number of U.S. Congressmen from South Texas and leaders from Rio Grande Valley cities and irrigation districts who have also asked for intervention from the U.S. State Department.
The vote came just hours after Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent a written request to the White House asking President Obama to personally intercede on behalf of South Texans who are suffering near-critical water shortages as a result of two years of drought.
Amistad release is a 'band aid' measure
Meanwhile, in an effort to bring immediate relief to cities and irrigation districts in the water-starved Rio Grande Valley, water releases from Amistad Dam, located on the Rio Grande near Del Rio, are increasing this week bringing high flow to the river and rapidly-declining lake levels which are expected to approach a record low in the days ahead.
At Del Rio, theNational Weather Service expects the Rio Grande to approach and remain near flood stage over the period of release which started on April 18 and is expected to end later this week.
The water is being transferred downstream to Falcon Dam where it will be released to meet irrigation and municipal water demand in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The releases are in response to water needs in both the United States and Mexico however, and do not impact Mexico’s deficit in deliveries to the United States under the 1944 Water Treaty say officials.
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At midnight on April 18, releases increased to nearly 8,000 cubic feet per second, including approximately5,300 cubic feet per second of Mexican water and 2,600 cubic feet per second of U.S. water. On Sunday, April 21, the release levels increased again, for a total release rate of nearly 9,000 cubic feet per second, including approximately 5,300 cubic feet per second for Mexico and 3,500 cubic feet per second for the United States. Releases are expected to be reduced beginning on April 27.
The new release rate is expected to cause the level of Amistad Lake to drop by as much as several feet before the end of the month, approaching the record low elevation of 1,058 feet that occurred in August 1998.
Amistad Dam is operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission on behalf of both the United States and Mexico. During normal and low reservoir conditions, the rate of U.S. releases is determined by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Rio Grande Watermaster based on the need to deliver water to Texas users.
More pressure on Mexico
Meanwhile, pressure continues to heat up over what some state and federal officials are calling Mexico’s water deficit.
Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein have joined a throng of state officials who are urging the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the U.S. State Department to compel Mexico to deliver Rio Grande system water to the United States.
According to the 1944 Treaty, Mexico must deliver an average of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually to the United States. Staples and Rubinstein say to date Mexico has withheld more than 430,000 acre-feet owed to the U.S., and the water deficit continues to grow, causing water suppliers across the Rio Grande Valley to run out of water.
In a press release last week, the Texas Department of Agriculture says in 2012 the IBWC was notified that millions of citizens in the Rio Grande Valley would face irreparable and catastrophic harm if Mexico did not immediately address the water deficit.
“Cameron County Irrigation District # 2, one of the Valley’s largest irrigation districts, has notified irrigation users that as of Apr. 12 they are no longer taking orders for new water deliveries. Farmers in the district will only have access to water currently committed. This will have catastrophic consequences to crop yields in this district and may result in total crop losses in some instances. Because of the interconnected nature of the Valley’s water distribution system, cities and industrial water users have difficult time acquiring water when irrigation water is exhausted,” the release stated.
“We are facing an absolute water crisis right now and we need Mexico to deliver the water entitled to Texas and the United States,” Staples said. “We need a renewed commitment by our federal government to insist that Mexico release water belonging to the United States.”
The Commissioners says in a state as large and drought-prone as Texas, water is absolutely critical to the well-being of our citizens, industries and economic health.
“Since November, the State of Texas has repeatedly warned the IBWC, the U.S. State Department and Mexico water officials in face-to-face discussions that if the Mexico water deficit issue was not resolved, this situation would occur,” said Commissioner Rubinstein. “Now it is occurring, thanks to our federal entities’ inability to secure a meaningful water delivery agreement. This is just the first domino falling, next we could see other irrigation districts running out of irrigation water, rising water prices…the State Department steps up their commitment to have Mexico comply with the water treaty and release water to Texas.”
Addressing the IBWC, Rubinstein said, “I look forward to receiving from you very soon a credible plan we can review and gain comfort in that actually and in a meaningful way addresses this situation. Conversely, continued delays by Mexico to commit to such a plan that in fact addresses the current deficit in a meaningful way now, speaks volumes about their commitment to actual future long term plans to prevent this situation going forward.”
Valley water officials say situation is critical
The Valley’s two other largest water districts, Hidalgo County Water District # 9 and Delta Lake Irrigation District, have announced that without substantial new inflows from Mexico or substantial rain, they too will likely stop taking orders within 30 days.
“We were forced to stop taking water orders last week,” reports Sonia Lambert, General Manager, Cameron County Irrigation District # 2. “We have been talking to the IBWC since November, warning them this was going to happen.”
Lambert said she is aware of meetings taking place in Washington, D.C.
“But meeting without inviting any of the people who are actually being impacted by the shortages…seems arrogant, at best. The IBWC seems to always wait until we have a crisis, then reacts,” she added.
“We will have to stop taking water orders by the end of May or early June, barring no new inflows and no substantial rains,” said Frank White, general manager of Hidalgo County Water District # 9. “It’s frustrating that the IBWC has been aware of this for so long and yet they have not done anything.”
Delta Lake Irrigation District General Manager Troy Allen says his district will probably run out of water and will stop taking orders on or about June 2.
“About half of our municipal suppliers are already having trouble paying for their water supply, and it’s not going to get any better for them, unless Mexico starts paying its deficit. We have warned the IBWC and warned them, and we’ve just beat that horse to death with them, and they have yet to get any significant results toward resolving the issue.”
Irrigation district officials report they are elated over the current emergency releases from Lake Amistad, but warn the effort will bring only temporary relief. They say they hope U.S. officials can convince Mexican water authorities to release more water from reservoirs in Northern Mexico in the days ahead.