Drought Dries Up South Texas

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Rising temperatures have pushed the Rio Grande Valley into uncharted territory, turning our landscape into a parched shadow of its former self. The once-mighty Rio Grande River and the crucial reservoirs at Amistad and Falcon reservoirs—essential lifelines for over 1 million people —have dropped to an all-time historic low of 18.76% before the peak summer months have even commenced. A dangerous combination of relentless heat waves alongside the lackluster enforcement of local conservation practices and an 80-year-old water treaty has left farmers scrambling for every drop of water while pleading with bystanders to do their part in mitigating the crisis.

After speaking with local experts like water advocate Sonny Hinojosa about the shortage, it became evident that the 1944 water treaty between the U.S. and Mexico—designed to ensure fair distribution of the Rio Grande’s flow—faced serious challenges. “Mexico is the problem and Mexico is the solution,” Hinojosa said. “If Mexico does not change their attitude, the future of our agriculture is pretty bleak.”

Over three decades, Mexico has failed to deliver its annual 350,000 acre-feet of water in full. While the treaty lacks enforcement mechanisms and relies heavily on diplomacy, excessive heat across the border has complicated matters as Mexico reportedly grapples with the effects of its water shortage.

The international reservoirs store essential water that feeds into the region’s extensive network of irrigation districts. These districts regulate water allocation between cities and farmlands, with typically 80% of the water directed toward agriculture. However, with the reservoirs depleted, these districts are left high and dry.

“Most of the municipalities in the RGV rely on irrigation districts to deliver their water,” said Hinojosa. “So regardless of how much water the cities think they may have in storage, if the irrigation district that provides water to them runs out, they’re going to face some shortages.”

With fewer crops to harvest and process come fewer jobs. Our economy is feeling the strain as the agricultural backbone of the Valley weakens. For the third consecutive year, farmers have faced severe water restrictions that have resulted in devastating outcomes. One of the most striking examples is the closure of the sugar mill after 51 years of operation, which cost 500 people their jobs. The water shortage has put farmers in an agonizing position: choosing between letting their crops die or paying astronomical prices to purchase the scarce water allotted to cities.

Additionally, the water shortage has forced farmers to decide what to plant. High-value crops like broccoli, celery, and cauliflower, which require significant water, are now too risky to cultivate. Instead, farmers are turning to less water-intensive crops such as onions and cabbage. However, the smaller yields and lower commercial value of these crops create a double-edged sword, leading to decreased income for farmers and higher prices for consumers.

According to Dante Galeazzi, President of the Texas International Produce Association, the situation is particularly dire for the RGV’s citrus trees. These perennials need consistent water year-round. Without sufficient irrigation, these trees will likely drop their fruit early as a survival mechanism before drying up altogether.

“If the tree dies from lack of water and you have to plant a new tree, it’ll take three to five years before it can produce commercial volumes of citrus,” said Galeazzi. “Currently, our growers are forecasting anywhere between a 20% to 30% crop loss based on what they think they have available for water to get them through summertime.”

The drought’s ripple effects extend far beyond parched fields and wilting crops. The A&M economist predicts that the RGV could face almost $1 billion in economic losses without adequate water next year, presenting a stark reminder of the urgent need for effective water management solutions. Under the guidance of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the U.S. government, cities are not required to implement water restrictions until a drought is officially declared. Unfortunately, this declaration is contingent on a third-party assessment of soil moisture achieved through a virtual aerial view of people’s lawns while completely disregarding the dangerously low levels of our community’s water reservoirs. By downplaying the severity of the water shortage, the TCEQ’s flawed system has resulted in political inaction from local council members when we need it the most.

Chairman for Region M Water Planning and former McAllen Mayor Jim Darling expressed unease regarding the inadequate public and political attention on the water shortage. “We’ve always had a hurricane, so everybody’s used to that water intake, but we’ve just hit record [low] levels,” said Darling. “What’s concerning me is educating people. The easy part is, let’s start conserving and let’s do it seriously. But there’s a reluctance to that, saying, ‘I don’t want to be the first one raising a red flag.'”

City leaders have made scant efforts to enforce restrictions, allowing unchecked water usage to exacerbate the drought’s impacts. McAllen alone has 69 car washes, each guzzling thousands of gallons of water daily. Of Brownsville’s 34 car washes, only 6 utilize a recycling system, leading to unnecessary waste. This is a clear indication that local councils need to prioritize water conservation, but so far, the response has been tepid.

The Valley’s current predicament is a harbinger of a broader crisis brewing across Texas. With climate change rendering surface water—rivers and reservoirs—increasingly unreliable, the state faces a daunting future. By 2070, water demand in Texas is projected to surge by 9%, requiring a staggering 19.2 million acre-feet of water. However, the state’s water supply is expected to plummet by 18%, leaving us between 5 million and 7 million acre-feet short. To put this in perspective, this shortfall is more than three times the combined capacity of the Amistad and Falcon Reservoirs when full. Such a deficit underscores the urgent need for innovative water management and conservation strategies to safeguard our future.

Mitigating the water crisis in the Rio Grande Valley requires a united, concerted effort from all stakeholders. Galeazzi presented the implementation of automated pay scales for water bills as a practical and immediate solution to incentivize conservation through financial means. “Pay scales that are commensurate with the amount of water we have in the Valley is the fairest approach,” he said. “If you charge people based on supply and demand and say, look, when you exceed X, you’ve got to pay Y—and Y is not X times two, but X times four—because it’s such a little water we have.”

While this offers an immediate fix, a longer-term solution to our water crisis demands significant investments in more ambitious solutions, such as ocean desalination. Desalination, the process of converting seawater into fresh water, could provide a stable and sustainable water supply for the region. Although the initial costs are high, the benefits of a reliable water source far outweigh the expenses in the long run.

In the past 10 years, the estimated price tag for a desalination plant reportedly skyrocketed from $400,000 to $1.4 billion. “We are going to need desalination, whether it’s today or 10 years from now, because if the Valley is going to grow, and we already know we don’t have more water coming, but less, we’re going to have to look at something else,” said Galeazzi. “So, if we don’t do that now, in 10 years hat project could be $5 billion.”

With cities like Laredo estimated to run out of water by 2044, the RGV stands at a crossroads. The drought—exacerbated by global warming, political inaction, and ineffective treaty enforcement—can no longer be dismissed as a future problem because we are experiencing the consequences of it today. However, with determined leadership and community effort, there is hope. By adopting comprehensive conservation strategies and ensuring fair water distribution, the Valley can revive its agricultural heartland and secure a sustainable future. Darling said it best: “It’s time we treat Mother Nature a little better.”