President Donald Trump has shown a penchant for scrapping U.S. international treaties or replacing them with deals of his own making. He’s pulled this country out of the Trans Pacific Partnership with Asian and North American countries and bolted from the Paris Agreement to mitigate human factors affecting our atmosphere. More locally, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has benefited the Rio Grande Valley immeasurably, is being renegotiated after Trump threatened to renege on that deal.
Each of those steps has brought howls of opposition. But at least one international treaty might benefit if the president turns his attention — and hostility — its way.
U.S. border interests have long complained about the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water sharing treaty for the Rio Grande. The 74-year-old treaty is grossly outdated, and major disagreements between the two countries over its provisions need to be addressed.
The treaty requires Mexico to deliver 350,000 acre-feet of water per year into the Rio Grande from several rivers that feed it; the United States has similar requirements.
But the river system isn’t the same as it was in 1944. Since that time the two major dams, Falcon and Amistad, have been built to better control the water in the river. More critically, Mexico has built several dams on the tributary rivers, controlling the flow of water to the Rio Grande. This has enabled Mexican interests to hold back water that otherwise would have flowed freely to the Rio Grande at the time the treaty was signed.
U.S. interests allege that Mexico has used the dams to take advantage of treaty stipulations that provide five-year windows for compliance. The windows allow for times of drought, when there isn’t enough water to release into the Rio Grande and still provide for the needs of Mexico’s own residents.
However, it’s apparent that in recent cycles, Mexico has withheld the water even during normal conditions, leaving U.S. short. It has then released whatever water was needed to comply with the five-year total in the final year of the cycle all at once. Critics say the practice has enabled the Mexican farming industry to expand while U.S. farmers have lost billions of dollars because they couldn’t irrigate their crops.
Some have called this a predatory practice that violates not only the intent of the water treaty, but international trade laws as well.
But while U.S. officials see the window as a means to deal with the whims of nature and expect the annual flows of water during normal times, Mexico interprets the clause to mean that as long as its obligations are met by the end of the five-year period, it has complied.
During the major drought that devastated South Texas farmers in the 1990s, Valley water districts filed suit against Mexico for violating the treaty. An end to the drought ended that litigation. More recently, in 2013, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, sent a letter to the International Boundary and Water Commission, threatening to withhold federal funding for the agency if the difference in interpretations couldn’t be resolved.
With a new president taking the helm in Mexico in December, this could be a perfect time to call for President Trump to complete a reworking of our country’s water-sharing treaty — or at least negotiate a consensus on the terms of the existing deal.