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Water shortage in Rio Grande Valley will be expensive, study shows

A view of Falcon Dam downstream from Falcon International Reservoir.
Barry Goldsmith, Jeremy Katz / National Weather Service Brownsville
via Texas Public Radio
A view of Falcon Dam downstream from Falcon International Reservoir.

About half the crops grown in the Rio Grande Valley are irrigated – meaning that farmers use water rerouted from the Rio Grande to cultivate their crops.

There’s a long line for that Rio Grande water, and farmers in far South Texas are at the end of it. Treaties between the United States and Mexico are supposed to ensure that the Valley has uninterrupted access to water. But with Mexico way behind on its part of the deal, some observers are projecting significant shortages.

Luis Ribera, professor and director at the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University, spoke to the Texas Standard about the economic impact of the water shortage.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Can you explain more about why the lower Rio Grande may be so short on water this year?

Luis Ribera: Sure. Well, there’s been a drought over the last couple of years. But what makes it worse is that the treaty that we have with Mexico, they’re supposed to deliver about 350,000 acre-feet of water per year on a five-year cycle. And they haven’t done so in a while. They owe us close to 700,000 acre-feet of water as of the end of last year.

I talked to producers at the end of last year, and they say, “we don’t know what we’re going to produce, because right now, our irrigation district, they tell us that there’s no water for agriculture.”

That sounds very dire. Are there particular crops that will be most affected?

Yes. Like you mentioned, about half of them use irrigation water. Any usually the higher value crops, like citrus, vegetables, sugar cane, for example, those are the ones that producers, if they don’t have irrigation water, they’re not going to produce.

Then there’s other crops such as cotton, corn and sorghum, that they can produce both dryland and irrigated. But if they don’t have irrigation water, then yields get chopped by half. So it’s a big impact. Basically you take producers the opportunity to make the most out of their crop.

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When do these farmers find out whether they have any water or enough water?

Right. Especially in the Valley right now, they’re deciding what to plant. So it’s already kind of late, and right now there’s no water there. At the end of last year, the irrigation districts told them, “we don’t have any water for irrigation.”

So, you know, it’s a dire situation. And there’s some crops that you can produce a dryland, but, you know, a citrus crop, vegetable crop and sugar cane, they need water. There’s not a way around it.

Do we have an idea how big of an economic impact this might make?

Sure. We calculated the potential economic loss. And again, you know, we had to make some assumptions just so we can come up with a number. Assuming that there’s no irrigation water at all in the Valley for the next year, the direct economic impact will be losing our citrus, vegetables and also our sugarcane crop. Also, we’re going to be losing about half of the yield for our cotton, corn and sorghum.

When you add all of them up, it’s close to about half a billion dollars; it’s about $496 million in direct impact. But when you add all the other impacts – the indirect impact is basically all the suppliers to produce those crops, all the pesticides, fuel, labor machinery and all that to produce those crops – that adds up to another a half billion dollars as well.

So the total economic impact, when you add them up, it’s about $994 million. And then the other side of that is that it also supports a lot of jobs. So you could lose about 8,400 full-time jobs.

Agriculture is so important to the Valley. What about the water supply for homes and businesses? Is that at risk, too?

Well, usually, that one is saved first. When you look at how much irrigation is used by the city and agriculture, agriculture takes a lion’s share. But the the water for the city is already, saved, I guess, and whatever little water they get, it goes through the city first and then will be for agriculture.

One issue, though, in the Valley, which I think is different from other places, is that this is surface water. So, it needs distributed through canals. Well, the canals need water so they can get from point A to point B, and usually it’s, basically city water rides on agricultural water. So the water that you have in the canal is usually agricultural water. So the city needs to get it from the river all the way to the city is going to right on top of it.

But if you don’t have agricultural water, then it could be an issue of how to get water from from the river to the cities as well.

Well, long-term, do the United States and Mexico need to rethink these treaties to reflect the new climate realities?

I do think so, because this treaty was signed in the 40s, I believe, and population growth and different crop mixes also have made a big impact on it. But, you know, we didn’t have any issues until the early 1990s. And since then, it looks like every other year there are some issues with water. And the last decade is just basically almost every year there’s an issue with water.

So I definitely think that something needs to be done because the problem is not going to get fixed; it’s actually going to get worse.

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