Reworking water treaty should be major priority

Rio Grande Valley agricultural interests continue to suffer under the woefully outdated water-sharing treaty between the United States and Mexico. The treaty, signed in February 1944, requires Mexico to ensure that 350,000 acre-feet of water flows into the Rio Grande from the rivers that feed it. Mexico is nearly 420,000 acre-feet in arrears, and under the treaty it has until Oct. 24 to provide it.

That’s a lot of water. One single acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre of land with a foot of water. It’s about 326,000 gallons, which would supply 650,000 households for a year.

Obviously, barring a major storm that sends millions of gallons of water into the river, we’re likely to be left high and dry.

To his credit, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he wants to comply with the treaty. But just as the president was in Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexican farmers were trying to storm dams on the feeder rivers tying to prevent the release of water into the Rio Grande. They had done the same in February, with greater success.

Their wish to keep the water to irrigate their crops is understandable, since it brings better harvests and thus more revenue. South Texas farmers, however, need it for the same reason.

But our fate shouldn’t be at the mercy of muscle flexed by Mexican farmers. That’s what treaties are for. This treaty, however, is terribly obsolete.

Much has changed since the treaty was signed in 1944 — including the rivers themselves. When it went into effect the Rio Grande and much of its tributary system had few controls. Over the past 75 years, however, two major dams have been constructed on the Rio Grande itself. Several others have been erected on the feeder rivers, enabling Mexican water officials to withhold greater amounts from flowing north. This helps Mexico’s farmers — and hurts ours.

Most importantly, the terms of the treaty are in dispute. To address the possibility of dry periods, the treaty features five compliance windows. Mexico is required to allow 350,000 acre-feet of water to reach the Rio Grande each year, but if dry conditions force a deficit for either country it has until the end of each 5-year period to make up the arrears. U.S. officials interpret the treaty to require adherence to the annual requirement, and have done so. Mexico, however, has purposely run deficits for the first four years of each term, counting on weather to provide the necessary water and flooding the river in the final year to meet the deficit. That leaves U.S. farmers with too little water for four years, and too much every fifth year.

President Trump has expressed a dislike for our international treaties, and either scrapped or reworked several. However, this treaty, which arguably is one of those that most needs to be reworked, has been ignored.

We need a new treaty must resolve this difference in interpretations over annual vs. five-year compliance, and define workable ways to address disputes and noncompliance.

Water is the lifeblood of any population. Our government must make this treaty a priority, and local officials need to do whatever they can to keep the issue on the table.