The Rio Grande is the lifeblood of South Texas. Cities and farmers on both sides of its international border depend on its water.
A 70-year-old treaty between the United States and Mexico is supposed to keep the river’s water flowing. But in the last three years, Mexico has fallen behind on its end of the deal. That has heightened tensions between the two countries and jeopardized the future of agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley.
Most of the water that flows into the Rio Grande south of El Paso, Texas comes from reservoirs in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Those reservoirs also water the fields of farmers throughout Chihuahua.
At the end of a long, hot work day farm laborers outside the city of Delicias heaved heavy sacks of cherry red jalapeños onto a metal scale. A supervisor called out their weight, then jotted down the number on a clipboard.
These peppers will be smoked for three days to make chipotle, one of the signature crops in this area. Their pungent scent penetrates the roadsides here at the end of August. These dehydrated chiles — smoldered till they’re brown and wrinkled — are a cruel imitation of the soil in this region.
Homero Chavez is second generation pecan farmer from Delicias. His father is credited with introducing the now-popular crop to this part of Mexico after befriending Deane Stahmann, a the founder of a well-known pecan company in Las Cruces, N.M. Chavez expects a poor harvest in the upcoming months.
"We've had a water shortage for the last two years," he said.
Drought knows no borders. Farm land in Chihuahua is just as parched as it is in Texas and New Mexico. Farmers here only got one third of the water they needed this year to nurture a healthy crop.
"If you don't have any water it will reflect on your prices drastically sometimes, and your profits will go down of course," Chavez said.
To survive, Chavez had to buy water rights from other farmers. He also spent $100,000 on a well to pump groundwater. Other farmers with fewer resources couldn't even afford to plant this year. Barren fields dot the landscape, overtaken by weeds. Some have abandoned farming altogether to hunt for construction jobs in the United States.
But, as luck would have it, the sky finally opened up in late July and delivered a much-needed soaking to the region. The excess rain caused a small local dam to overflow sending a new gush of water into Chihuahua’s Rio Conchos. This Mexican river eventually runs downstream to the Texas border where it meets with the Rio Grande River.
That’s where Mexico delivers most of the water it owes to the United States under a treaty signed by both countries in 1944.
In the last week of August, Mexico was behind by 38 percent on its deliveries. Back in May, the country was behind by 54 percent.
Under the treaty, Mexico has an obligation to deliver a minimum annual average of 350,000 acre feet of water to the Rio Grande in cycles of five years. Under the same treaty the United States delivers Colorado River water to the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.
Sally Spener is with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency that oversees binational water treaties between the United States and Mexico. She said American water deliveries to Mexico are consistent with their treaty obligations.
"We basically set aside water in the United States reservoirs that will be released and delivered to Mexico," she said. "We do not believe that the Mexican system is managed in a similar fashion."
In fact, it’s not. Jesus Luevano works for the Comisión Internacional de Límites y Agua, the Mexican agency that represents the country under the binational water treaties. He confirmed that irrigation districts in Mexico do not set aside water for the Rio Grande when they plan their yearly allocations.
“Because usually with the rains, in the past, we were able to comply with Mexico's obligations under the treaty," he said. "So we didn't have the need to make any operations in Mexico in order to comply.”
But since the drought hit in 2011, Mexico could no longer rely on wet weather to deliver water north. Two-thirds of the water Mexico sends to the Rio Grande stays in Mexico, going to farmers and cities in the border states of Coahuila and Tamaulipas. The remainder goes to South Texas. The combination of the drought and Mexico's low water deliveries has struck a heavy blow to the Rio Grande Valley.
"We're down to the bare bottoms of the bucket," said JoJo White, who heads an irrigation district in Mercedes, Texas.
One a recent afternoon he drove his pickup past fallow fields checkered with wild sunflowers. In better years these fields are lined with healthy rows of cotton, onion and grain.
"Half of the farm land in the district was not planted because there wasn't any water," White said. "That has never happened before."
Another year with scarce water could wipe out the farming industry here. A study by Texas A&M University estimates the economic loss would be $400 million and some 5,000 jobs. Cities would also be in trouble since they depend on irrigation canals to deliver their water supply.
Among locals there's a certain bitterness toward Mexico. Joe Pennington farms mostly sugarcane outside Raymondville.
"They're not good neighbors," he said. "I mean my neighbor right there if they have a problem I'll run over there and I'll help them."
Pennington had to sacrifice other crops and pool together all of his water in order to get a decent yield on sugarcane. He spent three times what he usually does buying water rights off other farmers. In a normal year Pennington also plants between 3,000 to 4,000 acres of cotton. This season he only planted 60 acres as a dryland crop.
"It didn't even come up off the ground," he said.
In an effort to turn things around, Mexican water officials are finalizing a new set of rules that would require irrigation districts to set aside water for the Rio Grande. These new rules could go into effect as early as October. But both countries are still stretched thin for water, so the challenge of finding better ways to share and conserve remains.