Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley are keeping a wary eye southward as the clock ticks down on the deadline for Mexico to make good on its water debt obligations under a treaty that governs the distribution of the precious resource between the two nations.

Under the 1944 treaty, both the United States and Mexico are entitled to water allotments from watersheds that span across the two countries and which feed the Colorado, Tijuana and Rio Grande rivers.

While the United States delivers 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to Mexico every year, Mexico is, in turn, required to release 1.75 million acre-feet of water from its reservoirs into the Rio Grande over a five-year cycle.

That averages to 350,000 acre-feet per year. But, as the latest five-year cycle is set to end Oct. 24, Mexico still owes the U.S. nearly a year’s worth of water — some 307,000 acre-feet.

It’s an issue that has increasingly alarmed Texan officials, who have for months pushed for the International Boundary and Water Commission to urge Mexico to fulfill its obligations.

And just days after Gov. Greg Abbott penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking him to intervene as the deadline draws nearer, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised his country will pay its debt — even as Chihuahuan farmers have staged protests and seized control of a dam whose reservoir would supply the water delivery.

The protests resulted in the deaths of at least two farmers during scuffles with the Mexican military.

LOCAL IMPACTS

The farmers who seized the La Boquilla dam in the northern state of Chihuahua earlier this month argue the water is desperately needed for their own crops after scant rainfall and persistent drought have upended agriculture there.

But it’s farmers here in the Valley who stand to face trouble meeting their irrigation needs in the coming year if Mexico doesn’t deliver on its debt obligation, according to Sonny Hinojosa, general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2.

“The ones that get hurt are the farmers,” Hinojosa said Friday.

That’s because, between municipalities and agriculture, farmers are second in line for access to that water.

“In the allocation process, the first and foremost water that’s reserved is for municipal needs. And the residual customer, or residual user, is agriculture. They’re the ones that suffer,” Hinojosa said.

Each year the Valley consumes about 1.1 million acre-feet of water. Mexico’s 350,000 acre-feet annual water obligation amounts to approximately one-third of the water used here, Hinojosa said.

“We have water right holders that are already running very low and we need Mexico’s compliance so they can make their plans and schedules for next year,” Hinojosa said.

Though the majority of irrigation needs for this calendar year have already been met, fall vegetable and perennial crops, such as sugarcane and citrus, need water year-round. With the Valley’s two reservoirs sitting at a combined 43.5% capacity, or approximately 1.65 million acre-feet, as of Friday, Hinojosa says “Mexico’s non-compliance does hurt our water supply.”

TOOTHLESS TREATY

Officials at the IBWC, the bi-national agency charged with overseeing and enforcing the water treaty, insist Mexico has pledged to fulfill its obligations within the next five weeks.

“The Mexican government has repeatedly stated its intent to fulfill its obligations during the current cycle,” said Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary to the IBWC on Friday.

But it’s unclear what will happen if they fail to do so.

Mexico was delinquent in meeting its obligations over the 2010-2015 cycle. They ultimately made good on the water debt from that cycle; however, the treaty explicitly states Mexico cannot experience delinquencies in two back-to-back cycles — regardless of whether the outstanding deficit from the first cycle was paid.

Though the treaty contains a provision for resolving a deficit accumulated over the course of one five-year cycle, it doesn’t contain language for resolving a delinquency accumulated during a second consecutive cycle.

Nor does the treaty include any methods to enforce those provisions, or to impose penalties should they not be met.

It’s a treaty without teeth, Hinojosa said.

“I don’t know what happens internationally, but as far as the treaty is concerned, it doesn’t have a penalty provision,” Hinojosa said.

Spener declined to speculate on what could happen should Mexico fail to meet its water obligations for a second consecutive cycle, instead saying Mexico is current — for now.

“Mexico did pay its debt from the 2010 to the 2015 cycle. They don’t have a debt at this time,” Spener said.

“The water they need to deliver now is the amount that they need to deliver so that they can end the current cycle without a debt,” she said.

Farmers walk at La Boquilla Dam, where they wrested control on Tuesday from National Guard troops in order to close the valves and reduce the flow of water toward the United States, Sept. 9 in Chihuahua State, Mexico. (Christian Chavez | The Associated Press)

URGENT ENTREATIES

But pressure from U.S. officials is mounting.

In March, IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins sent a letter to her Mexican counterpart, Roberto F. Salmón Castelo, reminding him of a December 2019 meeting at which La Comisión Internacional de Límites y Agua had pledged to deliver the bulk of the water by the end of February.

When that didn’t happen, Gov. Abbott in June sent Harkins a letter in turn, urging her to address the outstanding water deliveries and noting their absence was contributing to heightened salinity levels in the Rio Grande which could damage local crops.

With nearly a year’s worth of water still undelivered by the start of September, Abbott took his entreaties one step further when he called upon U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to intervene. Abbott also urged him to not accept compromises that would allow Mexico to deliver water from the Rio San Juan, which lies south of the Falcon and Amistad international dams.

Accepting such a compromise would be fruitless, since the U.S. would have no way to store the water for the coming year, Abbott argued in a letter he addressed to Pompeo on Tuesday.

“Accepting offers of water deliveries from the San Juan River in the Lower Rio Grande, which cannot be stored and is outside of the six named tributaries within the Treaty, is not advantageous to Texas,” the letter reads.

Thus far, there’s been no word on whether Abbott’s pleas have been heard.

In the meantime, as Valley farmers wait to learn if their water is coming, Mexican government officials are fighting amongst themselves, with López Obrador going as far as accusing state lawmakers of stirring up the farmers’ protests.

On Sept. 12, a news release alleging that Chihuahua state officials had presented incorrect information regarding the delivery of water to the U.S. was posted on the official Twitter account for the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations.

It was retweeted by the official Twitter account for CILA.

“Conagua invites Chihuahua authorities not to disseminate inaccurate information that may confuse the population,” the news release reads, in Spanish. CONAGUA — the National Water Commission — manages Mexico’s water resources.