Saturday, April 20, 2024

Rio Grande Valley’s Irrigation Water Status

⋅ BY JULIE TOMASCIK ⋅

Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers are close to running out of irrigation water, a situation that studies show could have major impacts on agricultural production and jobs in the area.

Texas Farm Bureau state directors toured the Valley with Hidalgo County Farm Bureau leaders recently to learn more about the issue. The area is often referred to as the Land of Two Summers. It’s an ideal growing climate for fruits, vegetables and major row crops.

“But it is very hot here, and our water supply is our lifeline. It’s crucial to our crop production,” said Courtney Schuster, organic farming director at Rio Fresh.

Allocated Water

In the Valley, temperatures rise to over 100 degrees for sometimes 100 days in a row. The intense heat, combined with crippling drought, takes a toll on the area’s agricultural production.

And just because farmers have water rights doesn’t mean they’ll have water this year. Many districts in the region have no irrigation water allocated for farmers in the area, and the situation is made worse by the ongoing drought conditions.

Reservoirs are at an all-time low. Lake Falcon’s water levels have fallen to 18.2%, and Lake Amistad has dropped to 24.8%.

“It’s very challenging to plan your year when your water availability is so uncertain,” Isaac Sulemana, Hidalgo County Farm Bureau president, said. “Unlike other parts of the state, our water is almost entirely surface water. It comes from the Rio Grande, which we share with Mexico.”

What Is Mexico’s Role?

The neighboring country is significantly behind on the water it owes the United States under the 1944 Water Treaty, further exacerbating the water issue for Valley farmers.

“I’m a 100% irrigated farmer with zero water right now, so my plan is still a little bit in flux,” said Brian Jones, TFB District 13 state director from Edcouch.

He said it’s important to continue bringing the water issue with Mexico to the forefront to help U.S. farmers who are struggling without water.

“We need to find some type of pressure point to apply to Mexico to make them comply and release the water that needs to be released,” Jones said. “We need the Biden administration to step up and enforce the treaty that’s not being enforced right now.”

Drought conditions are cyclical, but Jones noted this cycle seems to be taking longer to clear out and get back to normal.

“And once we do get water into the dams, the situation once again goes on the back burner,” he said. “We need to come to a solution where Mexico’s delivering the water that they owe us annually. Under the treaty, they’re supposed to deliver 350,000 acre-feet per year, and they’re not doing that.”

Eye-Opening Tour

Enforcing the 1944 Water Treaty is a priority issue for Texas Farm Bureau.

“The tour gave us more insight into the issues farmers and ranchers are facing here,” TFB District 9 state director John Griffith said. “Their livelihood is so dependent upon the water release and waiting for a rainstorm, a tropical event or a hurricane to bring them water.

“This was an eye-opening tour, and the meetings we have the opportunity to conduct and be part of, not only on the state level but on the federal level, can hopefully bring more awareness to the current situation they’re facing down here,” Griffith said.

A situation, that if not addressed permanently, leaves Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers facing a tough decision — to hang on as long as they can or step away from farming.

To view the 1944 Water Treaty, go to https://www.ibwc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/1944Treaty.pdf.


Julie Tomascik is editor at Texas Farm Bureau.

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