HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — A sudden public demand this week from the head of the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission for Mexico to pay up the water it owes the United States this year could be a signal that this international incident is escalating and could require White House intervention, Border Report has learned.
On Thursday, IBWC U.S. Commissioner Jayne Harkins issued a news release requesting that Mexico “take immediate action to deliver Rio Grande water to the United States to comply with the bilateral 1944 Water Treaty.” Mexico has less than four months to meet its water debt, otherwise, South Texas ranchers and municipalities could face grave consequences, Harkins said.
The 1944 treaty requires both countries to send so much water during five-year cycles. However, Harkins said Mexico is running a deficit and has until Oct. 24 to make it up.
“Farmers and cities in South Texas rely on this water to get them through the summer. Some irrigation districts will run out of water this year and municipal water districts are having to expend large sums of money to purchase additional water. To comply with the treaty, Mexico must increase its water deliveries,” Harkins said in a rare statement to media Thursday.
On Friday, Sally Spener, the U.S. Secretary to the IBWC told Border Report that if Mexico does not deliver the water then it will have failed to meet its obligations for two consecutive five-year cycles, and that is not allowed under the international treaty.
Mexico owes currently 432,360 acre-feet (533.3 million cubic meters) and has until Oct. 24 to pay, Spener said. The treaty stipulates that Mexico pay a minimum annual average of 350,000 acre-feet, but has fallen behind this last year of this cycle, which began on Oct. 25, 2015.
“The reason that they owe so much is they have not been keeping up with the deliveries during the current five-year cycle. They just have gotten behind,” said Spener, who is based in El Paso.
The last time Mexico incurred a back-to-back water cycle debt was in 2002, and it required the intervention of then-President George W. Bush, Spener said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents South Texas and who at the time of that last deficit situation was Texas Secretary of State, told Border Report that Mexico has had a long history of waiting until the last year of the water cycle to make up what it owes to the United States. Unfortunately, he said, that greatly affects South Texas ranchers, farmers, and municipalities, particularly in the lower Rio Grande Valley. I
“What happens on that is that Mexico has five years to pay it back. They pay it back on the fifth year at the very end, and then when the next five years start, they take more than they’re supposed to and then they start the process again and get in a deficit. And by the end of the fifth year, boom, they pay it and start the process again,” Cuellar said.
In early 2016, Mexico paid off the water debt it had owed from the 2010-2015 cycle, Spener said.
Spener said Mexico has the ability to pay what it owes in the next four months. The water must come from six tributaries stipulated in the treaty that fill up reserves held at Falcon Dam in South Texas, and Amistad Dam near Del Rio, Texas. The two main tributaries are the Conchos River, which enters the Rio Grande just north of the Mexican town of Ojinaga in the state of Chihuahua; and the Salado River, which feeds into Falcon Dam in Starr county.
If not repaid, South Texas farmers, ranchers, and municipalities could run out of water and face high prices to get water from elsewhere, she said.
“The consequences could be significant for our water users down in South Texas. The water that we receive from Mexico is stored in the international reservoirs, Amistad and Falcon dams, and Falcon Dam is the main water supply for farmers down in South Texas,” Spener said.
The consequences could be significant for our water users down in South Texas.”Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary International Boundary and Water Commission
Currently, Amistad Dam is only at 36% of normal conservation capacity; Falcon Dam is at just 25%, Spener said, due to the owed water. Real-time water flows can be seen on the IBW website.
Mexican officials have been engaging in talks with U.S. officials “and they have reiterated their commitment to meet their water delivery obligations to the United States,” Spener said. Additional water for the past month also has begun to flow from a dam on the Conchos River, she said.
But whether that will be enough to pay off the debt by Oct. 24 or require “high-level U.S. government” intervention, as Spener said was necessary in 2002, is yet to be seen. And it is uncertain whether President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed this when they met in Washington on Wednesday to celebrate the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
“A lot of times it does take president-to-president on that,” Cuellar said. “And I don’t know if that’s been elevated to the White House yet.”
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