© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hidalgo, Cameron counties issue disaster declarations as drought along border intensifies

Falcon Lake at Falcon International Reservoir
Barry Goldsmith, Jeremy Katz
National Weather Service Brownsville
Falcon Lake at Falcon International Reservoir

Hidalgo and Cameron, two counties along the Rio Grande, have issued disaster declarations in the past week over a critical water shortage in the region.

The declarations are the next step in an effort to conserve water locally, ask the state for resources and assistance, and work with the U.S. government to influence Mexico to deliver water owed to the region under an international treaty.

“Ahead of the traditionally hot summer months, South Texas continues to experience serious drought conditions,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño in his order.

Falcon Reservoir, near Zapata on the Rio Grande, provides most of the direct surface water supply to the Rio Grande Valley.

One year ago this week, Falcon saw a 19.7% fill level in its water reserves. This year, that number is 13.7%. Border region leaders expect that reserve to continue falling now and through the scorching summer.

In 2023, Falcon reached a historic low of 8% fill capacity in October, an 11.7 percentage point drop over the same six months the region is now facing this year.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez called the situation “a threat of imminent disaster” in his order.

The declarations made the counties eligible for state loan and grant funding for businesses affected by the water shortage.

In February, more than 500 people in the Rio Grande Valley lost their jobs as the only operating sugar mill in Texas, a company that represented more than 100 independent farmers, shut down due to a lack of access to irrigation water.

Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. has operated out of the RGV for more than 50 years. It announced its recently completed harvest and milling season would be its last because of water shortages.

The city of Mission is considering stopping all new construction, and Brownsville has issued an ordinance prohibiting new car washes from being built within five miles of each other.

Cortez said the drought has also been challenging because Mexico has delayed water payments to the U.S. owed under an international treaty.

The 1944 Water Treaty calculates Mexico’s water payments as annual averages within a five year period. It also provides that “in the event of extraordinary drought ... any deficiencies existing at the end of the aforesaid five-year cycle shall be made up in the following five-year cycle,” making efforts to receive water from Mexico largely diplomatic.

However, current water levels on both sides of the border have called into question Mexico’s ability to ultimately deliver the water it owes in the current payment period, which continues through 2025.

Bobby Janecka, commissioner for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), said that “it will be hydrologically impossible for Mexico to meet its treaty obligations this five-year cycle” in a February letter addressed to the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which overseed the 1944 Water Treaty.

A coalition of border leaders that includes Republicans U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzalez and Monica De La Cruz, and Democratic Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez have been joining weekly calls with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to request assistance with international water payments at a federal level.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.