In his zeal to change or scrap our international treaties, President Trump has ignored the one treaty that perhaps most needs to be revisited.
Mexican farmers last week invaded dams that feed the Rio Grande, protesting a scheduled release of water that is obligated under a 1944 water-sharing treaty that was signed Feb.
3, 1944. The farmers, who are dealing with severe drought that is crippling more than one-fifth of the country, say they need the water. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, however, insists that there is enough water for both the farmers and the international release, and that his administration wants to honor all the nation’s debts. The international treaty governs the flow of water through the Rio Grande and how it’s allocated to the United States and Mexico. It’s woefully outdated, and frequently creates conflicts between the two countries.
When the treaty was signed the Rio Grande generally flowed freely.
Over the years, dams have affected the river’s flow both on the river, though the Falcon and Amistad dams, as well as more than a dozen on the tributaries that feed the river.
Those dams have affected both the flow and supply of water, affecting the viability of the treaty. In addition, officials in the two countries have read key clauses of the pact differently, creating both confusion and anger on both sides. Lawsuits have been filed by the federal governments, U.S. states and even users, such as Rio Grande Valley water districts. The United States has always honored its obligations under the treaty to the letter. Mexico, on the other hand, has been delinquent several times, according to U.S. interests, although Mexican officials have claimed compliance.
Under the treaty, Mexico must release 350,000 acre-feet of water into the Rio Grande every year.
Five-year windows were created to address droughts and other conditions that can affect releases. A shortage one year can be made up in subsequent years, as long as the five year total adds up to 1.75 million acre-feet, or the five-year average.
One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water; that’s enough to supply more than 650,000 households for an entire year.
U.S. officials have maintained that the treaty’s language is clear, and have expected the yearly allocation; since the dams’ construction, however, Mexico has frequently withheld the water for the first four years, depriving South Texas farmers of supplies they need for irrigation. Mexico has then flooded the river in the fifth year to meet the requirements, insisting that as long as they provide the water by the five-year deadline they are in compliance.
U.S. water users have claimed the practice is predatory, as the lack of water hurts their crops while Mexican growers use it to improve their own harvests.
Mexican farmers’ efforts to commandeer the dams and withhold the water required under the treaty is just the latest opportunity to call for a new water-sharing treaty.
Experience under the current pact should enable officials to forge a new deal that better addresses both countries’ needs and changes that have occurred over the past 76 years.