Calls on federal officials to demand Mexico release water to Valley in crisis grow

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The region’s water shortage spurring Texas’ last sugar mill to close, tearing as much as $100 million out of the economy while cutting about 500 jobs here, is leading U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Brownsville, and former U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, a Republican, to blame federal officials for failing to demand Mexico comply with a treaty requiring it share reservoir supplies as farmers struggle to survive.

Flores is currently seeking the Republican nomination in the Tuesday primary. If she wins, she’ll face Gonzalez in the general election.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen, introduced a bill calling on the Secretary of State’s office to request Mexico release water as the 1944 treaty requires.

Last week, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Association, made up of more than 100 farmers, announced the closure of the 51-year-old Santa Rosa sugar mill, which pumped $80 million to $100 million into the economy, along with the loss of about 500 jobs.

W.R. Cowley Sugar House is seen as sugar cane processing has stopped Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Santa Rosa. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“The decision to close Texas’ only sugar mill will not just negatively impact our region’s economy and agriculture industry but it means that our country will lose one of its 10 remaining producers of raw sugar,” Gonzalez said in a press release. “I understand that this decision was not made lightly as agriculture in South Texas depends on a reliable water irrigation supply.”

Gonzalez called on the State Department and the Department of Agriculture to “take immediate action” amid the crisis.

“Because the U.S. State Department has failed to hold Mexico accountable for severe delays in delivering water as required by the 1944 treaty, producers and employees of the mill will lose their livelihoods,” he said. “I expect the effects of this closure and the looming water crisis to be felt by growers across our region and implore USDA and the State Department to take immediate action.”

Based on the treaty, Mexico fell behind on its water deliveries to the United States, Gonzalez said.

“Mexico is obligated to deliver an average of 350,000 acre-feet annually every five years as outlined in the 1944 water treaty,” he said. “The current delivery cycle of water to the U.S. began on Oct. 25, 2020. As of Feb. 10, Mexico has failed to provide the full 774,707 acre-feet of water still owed, delivering only 378,855 acre-feet of water three years into the cycle.”

Flores, the district’s former representative who faces a crowded field Tuesday in her race to reclaim her Congressional seat, blamed the federal government for failing to demand Mexico release water as the treaty requires.

“This is a terrible loss for our local economy in the R.G.V. and another failure of the federal government to hold Mexico accountable,” Flores said in a statement. “When I’m back in Congress, I will continue fighting for our job creators and businesses here in Texas-34 to prioritize our local growth.”

Low water levels seen Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Falcon Heights, Texas. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

De La Cruz introduced a bipartisan bill “aimed at addressing longstanding issues regarding Mexico’s compliance with the 1944 water treaty.”

“The proposed bill is designed to empower U.S. diplomats and officials in their endeavors to secure adherence to the treaty,” she said in a press release.

“The legislation mandates the Secretary of State to leverage the full spectrum of U.S. diplomatic tools, including voice, vote, diplomatic capital and resources, to enforce Mexico’s compliance with the existing treaty,” De La Cruz said. “Despite the crucial nature of this matter, the Secretary of State has so far failed to prioritize engagement on this critical issue.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has introduced the Senate’s counterpart to her bill, she said.

“Agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley heavily relies on consistent and sufficient irrigation water deliveries,” De La Cruz said. “However, for years, South Texas farmers have grappled with Mexico’s inconsistent and unreliable water deliveries owed to the United States under the 1944 water treaty. Just recently, the closure announcement of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, after 51 years of operation, underscores the severe impact of Mexico’s failure to meet its obligations. This closure represents the last remaining sugar operation in Texas, signifying the urgent need for action.”

In Santa Rosa, Sean Brashear, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Association’s president and chief executive officer, hailed De La Cruz and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, for pushing the bill.

Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau; Dale Murden, with Texas Citrus Mutual; and Dante L Galeazzi, the Texas International Produce Association’s president and chief executive officer, also stood behind the drive.

“The failure of the U.S. Department of State to obtain the water that is owed from Mexico is devastating Valley ag and soon the cities’ supplies,” Brashear said the press release. “After 51 years of proudly growing and milling sugarcane in Texas, we have no choice but to cease operations after this year’s harvest. Our resilient farmers waited for water from Mexico, but it never arrived. The heartbreaking consequence of this failure is real and if actions are not taken, we won’t be the last.”

Editor’s note: The third paragraph in this story was edited for clarity.


Mexican delays deepen water crisis, forcing agriculture casualties