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Texas lawmakers in DC push Congress to withhold aid from Mexico over water treaty

A view of Falcon Dam downstream from Falcon International Reservoir in February. Falcon Reservoir is currently at about 8.8% full.
Barry Goldsmith, Jeremy Katz / National Weather Service Brownsville
via Texas Public Radio
A view of Falcon Dam downstream from Falcon International Reservoir in February. Falcon Reservoir is currently at about 8.8% full.

A group of Texas members of Congress – senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans – say they are fed up with what they have called violations of a water rights treaty with Mexico.

And now, they’re threatening to try to withhold millions of dollars in U.S. aid money unless Mexico makes good on its treaty obligations.

Dina Arévalo, a reporter with The McAllen Monitor, said the treaty goes back to 1944 and dictates how the U.S. and Mexico share water from the Rio Grande in certain border regions.

“Mexico owes the U.S. 1.7 million acre-feet of water every five years or so, and ideally, that would be broken up into equal increments of 350,000 acre-feet per year,” Arévalo said. “But consistently, Mexico has fallen behind and waited until the last minute to make good on those deliveries, which has left a lot of our local farmers here in the Rio Grande Valley in the lurch.”

Part of the disagreement comes down to the timing, Arévalo said.

“Over the past few months, a lot of our American officials have come to the realization that Mexico has a different way of interpreting the treaty than we do,” she said. “For Mexican officials, they don’t have to give us that water until the end of that five-year term. There is no obligation within the treaty language to split it up into equal annual increments.”

And with the current five-year term almost up, water levels are low due to an ongoing drought.

“As Senator John Cornyn said during a press call on Thursday, we share the same kind of climate. Right now, South Texas is experiencing abnormally high heat, long summers, dry summers, and Mexico is experiencing the same thing,” Arévalo said. “But in 2022, a tropical weather system that summer dumped enough water in eight different Mexican reservoirs that they could have made good on their water debt to the U.S., but even during that time of abundance, they failed to open up any of their dam gates to release any of that water downstream.”

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This doesn’t just affect the Rio Grande Valley and Texas, according to Arévalo.

“This lack of water, this refusal to release water, also affects over a million people just on the other side of the river in Mexico’s northern border states,” she said. “This time is different because we are at a high point, a critical point, for water supply. We are served by two international reservoirs, Falcon International Reservoir and Amistad International Reservoir near Del Rio. And both of those waterways are at critically low levels currently. Falcon Reservoir is at about 8.8% full.”

The consistent lack of water over recent years has done damage to the Valley’s agricultural sector.

“As I reported in February, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Association announced that it had to completely cease 51 years of operations in the Valley,” Arévalo said. “Texas Monthly reported that sugar cane is one of the water-hungriest crops a farmer can grow, but at this point, it doesn’t matter how water hungry that crop is. Up to 70% of the Rio Grande Valley’s water comes from the Rio Grande. So even if you’re not taking into account a water-hungry crop, we’re still in dire straits.”

At this point, the Texas delegation in Congress – including lawmakers from both parties – is discussing withholding aid. Arévalo said water is a bipartisan issue because it is so essential.

“Water is life. At the current moment, the Rio Grande Valley is experiencing a development boom while our agricultural industry is shrinking. Not only are we losing our sugar growers, but we are at serious risk of losing our citrus industry,” she said. “Without this water, we won’t be able to build new subdivisions. We won’t be able to supply our businesses, our industry with the water that we need to function.”

The exact amount of aid that hangs in the balance remains to be seen. So far, lawmakers have discussed withholding $7.6 million from the 2025 appropriations bill.

“But in speaking with Senator Cornyn earlier, he told me that that figure might actually be higher,” Arévalo said. “It just depends.”

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Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Sarah Asch
David Brown
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."