World leaders, diplomats and even scientists have been warning us for years that the next Great War will be over water and not oil, a resounding sentiment echoing across the U.S. /Mexico border this week as disgruntled farmers, politicians and community leaders from both sides worry about where the water will come from to grow their crops this year.
Harsh words have already started to fly over a recently announced International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) plan to release water from the Rio Grande River to Mexico this month, earlier in the year than usual, a move Texas and New Mexico irrigation districts say will cause serious loss of water to evaporation at a time when U.S. farmers are going to need every inch they can find following last year’s drought.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples are the latest to join the ranks of those opposed to the release of water from Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico that will send millions of gallons of water across the U.S. border into Northern Mexico where drought stricken farmers say they desperately need the resource to recover from last year’s mega drought.
In a joint letter from Staples and Rubinstein to IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina last week, they urged that authorities “act immediately to rescind the decision to release the water because it will result in significant harm to American farmers and ranchers and [will be a] waste of water during this time of drought.”
The Mexican branch of the IBWC had made formal request earlier this month for the early release of water, a provision they say is authorized by a 1944 treaty between the two countries that outlines how water in the watersheds of both countries is shared.
The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC), headed by Drusina, is an official dual government agency under the control of the U.S. State Department and is the U.S. component of the two-nation International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which applies the boundary and water treaties of the United States and Mexico and settles differences.
The Commission was formed as a result of the Treaty of 1944, established for the utilization of waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande and to determine how that water would be shared in the international segment of the Rio Grande from Fort Quitman, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico. This treaty also authorized the two countries to construct operate and maintain dams on the main channel of the Rio Grande.
The Convention of May 21, 1906, provided for the distribution between the United States and Mexico of the waters of the Rio Grande above Fort Quitman, Texas, for the 89-mile international boundary reach of the Rio Grande through the El Paso-Juárez Valley. This Convention allotted to Mexico 60,000 acre-feet annually of the waters of the Rio Grande to be delivered in accordance with a monthly schedule at the headgate to Mexico's Acequia Madre just above Juárez, Chihuahua.
To facilitate such deliveries, the United States constructed, at its expense, the Elephant Butte Dam in its territory. The Convention includes a provision that says in case of extraordinary drought or serious accident to the irrigation system in the United States, the amount of water delivered to the Mexican Canal shall be diminished in the same proportion as the water delivered to lands under the irrigation system in the United States downstream of Elephant Butte Dam.
History of the Water Treaties
The Treaty of 1944 provided the water of the Rio Grande an allocation of all of the waters reaching the main channel of the Rio Grande from the San Juan and Alamo Rivers, including the return flows from the lands irrigated from those two rivers, and two-thirds of the flow in the main channel of the Rio Grande from the measured Conchos, San Diego, San Rodrigo, Escondido and Salado Rivers, and the Las Vacas Arroyo—subject to certain provisions—and one-half of all other flows occurring in the main channel of the Rio Grande downstream from Fort Quitman.
The Treaty allots to the United States all of the waters reaching the main channel of the Rio Grande from the Pecos and Devils Rivers, Goodenough Spring and Alamito, Terlingua, San Felipe and Pinto Creeks, and one-third of the flow reaching the main channel of the river from the six named measured tributaries from Mexico and provides that this third shall not be less, as an average amount in cycles of five consecutive years, than 350,000 acre-feet annually, plus one-half of all other flows occurring in the main channel of the Rio Grande downstream from Fort Quitman.
Two subsequent treaties followed—the Chamizal Convention of August 29, 1963, resolved the nearly 100-year-old boundary problem at El Paso, Texas-/Juárez, Chihuahua, caused by flooding that redirected a section of the river; and the Treaty of November 23, 1970, resolved all pending boundary differences and provided for maintaining the Rio Grande and the Colorado River as the international boundary.
Mexico and U.S. Southwest
Water issues once again surfaced between framers on both sides of the Texas/Mexico border. Texans argued that Mexico owes the United States about 450 billion gallons of water under the terms of a 1944 treaty to share the waters of the Rio Grande, and that since 1992 Mexico has fallen behind on its required deliveries. Texas farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, who depend on water from the river to irrigate crops, have been hit hard by Mexico’s water debt.
Parched fields and dusty irrigation ditches caught the attention of state officials. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry outlined a plan for Mexico to provide enough water to meet Texas’ immediate water needs, as well as cooperative efforts to prevent future deficits.
In April that year Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and Valley growers met with State Department officials to present evidence from satellite imagery that Mexico had enough water to meet its commitments. In February, Attorney General John Cornyn announced the creation of an in-house task force to investigate legal and diplomatic avenues to resolve the dispute and to secure water for users in the Valley.
What resulted was an agreement between then-U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox. Water stored in Mexican reservoirs not named in the 1944 treaty were utilized to repay a portion of this water debt, a move that enraged Mexican agriculture producers who threatened to take the issue to the Mexican Supreme Court. They argued that by taking this water illegally, the Mexican government had seriously degraded their ability to continue farming in the region in order to repay water they believed was not owed to the U.S. government.
Last year’s troubling drought, the worst in Texas and North Mexico’s history, again has caused troubles to brew on both sides of the border. Mexican farmers, desperate to irrigate crops in the warm spring of 2012, made formal request to receive their water allotment from Elephant Butte Reservoir in April, at least a month ahead of the normal schedule. But Texas and New Mexico farmers and ranchers say such an early release will cause farmers to lose valuable water during peak need in a drought year. If Mexico gets its water far in advance of the U.S. districts, who are not ready to receive their share of the reservoir water, a lot of water will be lost to seepage and evaporation, causing additional water shortages for U.S. farmers.
In spite of the early release date, the IBWC granted the request and a release from the New Mexico reservoir is expected to take place in early April.
That decision has been met with opposition in Austin where Rubinstein and Staples are speaking out about the move and have petitioned the IBWC to reverse its decision.
“In the wake of the worst one-year drought in Texas history, we are asking this federal commission, run by an appointee of President Obama, to act immediately to rescind this devastating decision,” Commissioner Staples said. ”Sending water to Mexico at a time when Texas reserves are extremely vulnerable further jeopardizes our water resources and jobs here at home.”
As Texas struggles with nearly $8 billion in agricultural losses attributed to the drought, Staples says Texas citizens continue to face severe water shortages and restrictions, and he is calling the IBWC order to release water early to Mexico “contrary to the welfare of U.S. citizens” and one that “disrupts the strategic plans Texas and New Mexico water users have put in place to address drought; wastes water; and sets a dangerous precedent of catering to Mexico’s demands for water.”
“As I expressed to IBWC Commissioner Drusina in the halls of the Texas Capitol, his decision focused only on the interests of Mexico,” said TCEQ Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein in a press release this week. “What he should have done is negotiate with Mexico, keeping American irrigators foremost in mind to ensure that their interests were protected under the terms of the 1906 Convention.”
In their letter to Drusina, Rubinstein and Staples say: “We are also concerned about the decision making process that seems to be used for the delivery of water for Mexico. 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, namely those who rely on Rio Grande Project water.”
The Texans say they are greatly concerned that last year’s drought has caused Texas farmers and ranchers to lose access to their water, and the IBWC’s move is a choice to “forego negotiations with Mexico and meet their call for water, to the detriment of the water resources and the interest of your constituency, the American irrigators.”
“We are gravely concerned that the 1906 Convention is being implemented in a way that discriminates against U.S. water users [and] respectfully urge you to resolve these issues in a manner that restores the confidence of Texas water users in the U.S. Section of the IBWC,” the letter states.