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After more than a half century as one of the Rio Grande Valley’s biggest cash crops, injecting up to $100 million into the region’s economy every year, the South Texas sugar industry has come to a bitter end — unless creative growers opt for alternative sweetening sources such as sugar beets or even stevia.

All fingers point to Mexico’s decades-long abuse of the 1944 water-sharing treaty between our two countries as the culprit.

Truth be told, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Perhaps we should be glad we enjoyed the benefits of sugar production as long as we did. After all, it took an act of Congress to bring the non-native crop to the Valley. Specifically, U.S. Rep. Eligio “Kika” de la Garza, who represented the Valley from 1965 to 1997 and was one of the most powerful members of Congress during his tenure, pushed through major amendments to the federal Sugar Act in 1971 that changed quotas and price supports in the heavily regulated, and subsidized, industry and allowed its expansion into Texas. The amendments even carry his name.

Unfortunately, sugar cane is a thirsty crop, and the growth of Valley sugar coincided with rapid erection of dams across Mexican rivers that fed the Rio Grande, which provides almost all water for both drinking and irrigation to the Valley. Mexican interests began using those dams to withhold the water they were obligated let pass into the river under the treaty.

We can’t just blame Mexico’s dereliction, however, without noting U.S. and Valley officials’ dereliction in addressing our chronic water woes.

After all, for decades officials have been told of the need to renegotiate the woefully outdated treaty that was signed even before the Amistad and Falcon dams were built on the Rio Grande itself. Periodic “minute” updates to the treaty aren’t enough to address the need for wholesale changes that address current conditions — and the need for stronger enforcement measures.

For decades they’ve been told that Mexico’s denial of water essentially is a predatory practice that have cost the economies of South Texas, and the nation as a whole, billions of dollars — not just from sugar but other crops that have failed due to the lack of water.

A worker cultivates a field with the W.R. Cowley Sugar House in the background on Monday, March 4, 2024, in Santa Rosa. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

For decades they’ve been told that current water policies eventually wouldn’t be able to sustain the Valley’s population growth. The minimal investment in groundwater development and desalination has been anemic.

For decades they’ve been told of the need to address the system of unlined, uncovered irrigation canals that lose up to 25% of their water to seepage and evaporation. They need to be lined and covered, or replaced with enclosed pipes.

Sadly, South Texas and federal officials both have treated water policy like the proverbial hole in the roof: they can’t fix it when the problem exists and they see no need when it doesn’t.

Sure, Mexico deserves a large share of the blame for abusing loopholes in the 80-year-old treaty. However, our own officials can’t escape their own fault for not holding Mexico’s feet the fire, demanding a new treaty, and investing in infrastructure improvements that could — and still need to — mitigate the problem.