Valley’s water scarcity concerns continue to mount

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As lake levels at Falcon and Amistad international reservoirs continue to drop, people in the Rio Grande Valley are becoming increasingly concerned, including one of Hidalgo County’s highest leaders.

On Tuesday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez declared a state of disaster, saying that a regional drought that has plagued the Valley on and off for the last few years now poses “a threat of imminent disaster” in light of the persistently low lake levels.

The combined U.S. storage of water held at the two reservoirs has now fallen to just 22%, according to local officials.

That’s due in large part to Mexico failing to deliver to the Rio Grande hundreds of billions of gallons of water owed under the terms of a 1944 water sharing treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

Four years into the current five-year treaty cycle, Mexico has delivered less than 400,000 acre-feet of water out of the 1.75 million acre-feet owed to the U.S.

But now, American officials are beginning to wonder if there’s more to the water scarcity story.

On Friday, the county judge’s office expressed further concern that an untold volume of water is “missing” from the reservoirs that supply the region’s water. Cortez expressed those concerns as part of an announcement that the county has begun seeking comprehensive water data from both state and federal officials.

“We started our analysis by looking at the water that Mexico owes us, but we also realized that mathematically Mexico’s non-compliance with the Treaty of 1944 doesn’t account for all our missing water,” Cortez stated via a news release Friday.

“So now we need to see where the rest of our water is and why it isn’t reaching us,” he further stated.

Cortez has penned two letters to water officials — one to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency that oversees water rights management via watermasters, and another to the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the binational water treaty.

Cortez is asking each agency to provide the county with all of their records regarding water inflows “to the mainstem of the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman” from both Mexican and American tributaries.

Fort Quitman is located about 80 miles south of El Paso. From there, the river wends through the desolate desert foothills of Big Bend, then down through the South Texas Plains before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville.

The 1944 water sharing treaty lays out how the two countries divide ownership of any water that reaches the Rio Grande from Fort Quitman southward to the Gulf.

The majority of that water comes from six tributaries located wholly in Mexico — the Conchos, San Diego, San Rodrigo, Escondido and Salado rivers, as well as the Las Vacas stream.

The treaty stipulates that two-thirds of the water the flows from those tributaries belong to Mexico, while the remaining one-third belongs to the United States.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is entitled to 100% ownership of the water that flows into the Rio Grande from the Pecos and Devils rivers, which are wholly located on this side of the border.

Not only is Cortez asking IBWC and TCEQ officials to hand over data they may have regarding inflows from both the Rio Grande’s Mexican and American headwaters, he’s also asking them to divulge any conclusions they may have drawn from such data.

“Any opinion you or your agency may have formed as to the mainstem of the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman from United States tributaries, and any opinion as to the cause of such trend,” the letters addressed to both agencies’ leaders read.

This isn’t the first time Valley leaders have sought answers from state and federal officials regarding Mexico’s water liabilities as they relate to the 1944 treaty.

In late-2019 and early-2020, municipal, county and state officials issued a similar flurry of requests as Mexico’s failed deliveries then threatened to result in a third cycle of treaty noncompliance.

However, Cortez’s letters to the TCEQ and IBWC appear to mark the first that time local officials have begun to turn their attention toward discrepancies in the accounting of American water sources, as well.

But that’s not all.

Recently, the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court has taken things one step further by engaging the services of an Austin-based firm called H20 Partners “to coordinate the development of a countywide plan to address projected water shortages in the coming summer months,” Friday’s news release states.

The county says the firm will be available to work with local water officials, including municipalities, water supply corporations and utility district managers, to help craft a “cohesive response to water availability issues,” the news release states.

For one local official, the Valley won’t be able to accomplish any impactful water conservation changes unless communities work together to create a unified response to the crisis.

“If McAllen gets real tough, or Mission gets real tough, then they’ll just go and they’ll develop in the towns that don’t have those regulations,” Mike Perez, the new city manager of Mission, said on Thursday.

Perez’s comments came just days after the Mission City Council approved a series of rezoning requests that received staunch pushback from neighboring residents.

One such development proposal involved the rezoning of more than 25 acres of land from “agricultural open interim” to single family “large lot residential.”

During a city council meeting Monday, residents living adjacent to the 27.969-acre tract of land expressed concerns that existing road, water and sewer infrastructure will not be sufficient to meet the burden of future development.

Residents also highlighted the ongoing water scarcity crisis as another looming concern.

In recent weeks, the Mission council has considered implementing a moratorium on any residential or commercial development project in excess of five acres; however, discussions stalled and the moratorium has remained on the shelf ever since.

Perez said some members of the city council share residents’ concerns about how unchecked land development could impact municipalities as the water crisis worsens.

However, he cautioned them about the ramifications that a development moratorium could have.

“I said, well, we can have that discussion. If we look at doing at what they’re talking about, you’re talking about having a substantial impact on all development in Mission,” Perez said. “We’ve gotta be mindful of that.”

Perez reiterated that a successful solution can only come through regional thinking.

“One of the things that a lot of the cities have been doing is having discussions with the county judge because we think for it to be fair we need to adopt whatever we’re going to do countywide,” he said.