Water conservation

Mexican drought causes water crisis in South Texas

This story is a collaboration between The Texas Observer and Inside climate news.

The water crisis in northern Mexico is spilling over into Texas, drying up the two binational reservoirs of the Rio Grande, on which millions of people and a billion dollars of agriculture depend.

One reservoir, Lake Falcon, is only nine percent full. Neighboring communities are scrambling to extend water intakes and install auxiliary pumps to capture its final dregs. The other reservoir, Amistad, is less than a third away.

“It’s hit an all-time low,” said Maria Elena Giner, commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages Mexico’s delicate commercial water sharing on the Rio Grande. “This is a historic moment in terms of the challenges our agency is facing.”

In far southern Texas, the two most populous counties issued disaster declarations last week, while others are struggling to keep pace with the ongoing crisis. If heavy rains do not come, current reserves will run out in March 2023 for some three million people who live on both sides of the river in its middle and lower reaches.

“That’s it, game over at this point,” said Martin Castro, watershed science director at the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo. “And that’s in six months. It doesn’t look good.

Water levels have dropped so precipitously that some are “praying for a hurricane” to fill the reservoirs. Courtesy of Sam Sandoval Solis of UC Davis and the Rio Grande International Study Center

The city of Laredo shares the river with the burgeoning 70-mile stretch of suburban sprawl that lies 100 miles downstream near the Gulf of Mexico in an area known as the Rio Grande Valley. This most populated stretch along the river includes major Mexican cities like Matamoros and Reynosa and some 40 smaller ones in Texas. Most major cities here have doubled their populations since the 1980s.

Since then, the water supply has only diminished. Seventy percent of the water that reaches the valley comes from the mountains and deserts of northern Mexico, which is plagued by 20 years of drought in all North American deserts.

Mexico owes a third of the water that falls in these mountains to Texas under a 1944 treaty. But for nearly two years it has been unable to make a payment. His latest attempt to do so sparked a riot by local farmers who cut off their water supply to farmers 500 miles downriver in Texas.

Since then, the drought has only worsened. Mexico’s third-largest city, Monterrey, about 100 miles from the Texas border, has been rationing water all summer. The Rio Grande Valley has no reason to believe that it will get water from northern Mexico anytime soon.

Meanwhile, a record-breaking hot summer in Texas means the region needs more water than ever to keep its crop fields and lawns alive. Only massive rains will reverse this situation.

“We’re praying for a hurricane,” said Jim Darling, former mayor of McAllen, Texas, and head of the Region M water planning group, which covers Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

The area doesn’t have many other options. The emergency plans provide for the delivery of drinking water by truck. Other pipeline projects to distant aquifers are years away from completion. In the past, heavy rains always saved the day when the water shortage approached.

But dry spells have hit harder and more frequently since the mid-1990s. Rio Grande reservoirs reached dangerously low levels in 1999 and 2013, but never as low as they are today.

The graph shows the water storage levels of the Amistad reservoirs.
“The bucket is almost empty. We are heading towards the point of no return. » Courtesy of the Texas Water Development Board

“Wishing for a hurricane is actually kind of weird,” said Sonia Lambert, manager of Cameron County’s No. 2 Irrigation District, which supplies water to farmers in The Valley. “But at this point, that’s what’s going to save us. It’s a very scary situation.”

This disaster surprised no one. More than a century of development along the banks of the Rio Grande has transformed it from a wild torrent to a tamed channel in a ditch. The old Great River has long since disappeared. This summer it stopped flowing entirely for more than 100 miles of its most rugged stretches where it had never been known to run dry before.

Yet solutions have eluded authorities in the border area, due to the challenges of binational management and the region’s historical marginalization as the largely Spanish-speaking periphery of the United States.

Now, solutions are desperately needed.

“The bucket is almost empty,” Castro told Laredo. “We are heading towards a point of no return.


Read a detailed article on this crisis in an upcoming article from the Texas Observer and Inside climate news“Drifting into Disaster on the (Second) Rio Grande.”