Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
U.S. / Mexico: Tempers Boil Over Border Water Battle

Via The San Antonio Express, a report on recent tension between the US and Mexico over the Rio Grande:

Rio Grande basin water fight Photo: San Antonio Express-News / SA

State officials are taking a stand against the binational International Boundary and Water Commissionover the release of Rio Grande water to Mexico. They say the water payments will cause substantial losses to U.S. crops and run counter to the 1906 pact governing water shares in the West Texas and New Mexico region.

“Our interpretation of the 1906 Convention does not entitle Mexico to receive water whenever they call for it,” Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein wrote in an April 3 letter to IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina. “It appears that your decision to deliver water to Mexico under the current circumstances is inconsistent with the terms and conditions of the Convention, and results in the protection of Mexico’s citizens at the expense of U.S. citizens.”

The water in question comes down from Rio Grande headwaters in Colorado and is collected at Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico. It then is released to the Caballo Reservoir for use as part of the Rio Grande Project, which serves parts of New Mexico and West Texas, as well as for diversion to areas across the border.

The 1906 Convention governs water use north of Fort Quitman, Texas, and a 1944 treaty governs use to the south, where Mexican tributaries begin to feed into the river.

U.S. users in the El Paso and Elephant Butte areas, anticipating scarcity, had this year decided to delay receiving their water until May.

Meanwhile, Mexican growers, grappling with pumping problems that increased their need for surface water, requested and were granted an early supply. The releases already have begun.

“Mexico is in the process of rehabilitating its wells, and so they didn’t have sufficient wells to be put in service to be able to get their crops in with ground water,” IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said. “They need the surface water, and Commissioner Roberto Salmon in the Mexican session has expressed that. He has indicated that in order to get their cotton planted in the Juarez Valley, they need surface water irrigation.”

Rubinstein, who was Rio Grande watermaster several years ago when Mexico held back water to the detriment of farmers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, said he couldn’t speak to Mexico’s well situation but questioned the losses relative to the delivery.

“The estimate right now is that to get 12,000 acre-feet to Mexico, the U.S. is going to lose about 50,000 acre-feet of water. That’s the problem,” he said. “Fifty thousand acre-feet of water is a lot of water any time. It’s a huge amount of water when you’re dealing with the very scarce resource that we have right now.”

An acre-foot is enough water to flood an acre of ground a foot deep. The El Paso and the Elephant Butte districts, which rely on the Rio Grande to irrigate crops including pecans and alfalfa, are considering legal action if they need to recoup agricultural losses. The city of El Paso also relies on the Rio Grande to supplement municipal supplies during the summer.

“Clearly the water’s been released, the losses are already materializing,” Rubinstein said.

“If you started out with a certain amount of water that you were expecting to lose this year and because of a unilateral action you lost 25 to 50,000 acre-feet, that is an impact to agriculture, and it’s a negative one,” he added.

Drusina, the IBWC commissioner, responded to the Texas officials with an April 5 letter contending the IBWC accurately interpreted the treaty and agreed to release the water only after a consultation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation determined that the effect to U.S. users would be minimal.

“Like you, I share concerns over scarce water resources in the Rio Grande basin,” Drusina wrote. “In our March 2012 binational monthly coordination meeting, BOR reported that the basin-wide snow-water equivalent is 68 percent of average and that water allocations to all users are likely to increase as runoff from snowpack reaches the Project.”

Rubinstein said that missed the point, as water losses are amplified when water levels are low.

“The river was dry. You have to get the river wet. You have to charge it. You lose a lot to the banks. You lose a lot to groundwater infiltration,” he said.

“The response clearly intimates that part of the decision was based on runoff from the snow melt. That is like me going to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas knowing that Falcon Lake is in the 40-percent range but telling people, ‘You know what, I think it’s going to rain like crazy next month. Let’s use the water now.’”

Drought cycles and population growth on both sides of the border will continue to tax the Rio Grande. And with memories fresh of Mexico’s water debt ultimately being settled in part by intervention from the U.S. Department of State and in whole by the final arrival of rain, the tone is getting testy.

Under the 1944 treaty, water is delivered in five-year cycles, but Rubinstein is concerned to see that Mexico is currently behind.

“We do not want to end this current five-year cycle under the ’44 treaty with a new debt,” he said. “We’ve lived it once. We don’t want to live it again.”

Meanwhile, the exchange of letters and the issuance of statements by U.S. water users reads like a “he said, she said” about the overall Rio Grande water-sharing dialogue.

Drusina said the releases were discussed and accepted during meetings in Austin on March 20 and 21. He added that the reluctance of U.S. officials to travel to Mexico, due to the ongoing drug war, has made it difficult to “schedule meetings where the appropriate individuals from both countries could be present.”

“The meeting was not a discussion. It was clear that your decision had already been made,” Rio Grande Compact Commissioner Patrick Gordon wrote.

Rubinstein said numerous meetings had been scheduled in Texas border cities as well as at a conference room at Amistad Reservoir, which straddles the border, only to have Mexican officials cancel.

Spener, of the IBWC, countered that Texas officials could have attended meetings called for in Mexico City, which is considered a safe part of Mexico.

“I think the big picture is that we have an obligation to deliver water to Mexico under the treaty, and the International Boundary and Water Commission is applying the treaty as we are charged with doing,” she said. “We believe the deliveries to Mexico are consistent with the treaty.”

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 21st, 2012 at 1:36 am and is filed under Mexico, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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