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‘We need each other:’ Mexico’s president responds to Texas legislators’ threats on water crisis

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gesticulating during a briefing conference when talk about journalistic notes from some media outlets that disqualify his government at the National Palace. on May 1, 2024, Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Luis Barron/ Eyepix Group)
Luis Barron
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

A bipartisan group of U.S. legislators recently signed on to a letter urging “designated funds” be withheld from Mexico if it does not comply with a long-standing treaty that says it must periodically release water from the Conchos River in Chihuahua into the Rio Grande watershed.

The effort by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, along with a bipartisan group of House representatives from Texas, was the latest move by leaders in the state to pressure Mexico to release the water it owes the U.S. since 2020, during one of the most intense and economically damaging droughts on record.

“I'm sorry that it's come to this,” said Cornyn on a press call on Thursday. “If Mexico had in good faith worked with us to try to figure out how to come up with other alternatives, we would have welcomed that.”

Mexico is obligated by a 1944 treaty to send more than 400 million cubic meters of water to the Rio Grande as a yearly average within five year cycles to pay back for the water that the U.S. supplies to Mexico on other parts of the border.

But since the current cycle that began in 2020, Mexico has provided only a fraction of that amount. However, the treaty provides that deficiencies in one cycle can be made up in future cycles, making U.S. efforts to demand water from Mexico largely diplomatic.

A majority of the water that flows in the Rio Grande starting in Del Rio, is supplied by the Conchos river in Chihuahua, that flows north as the river loses elevation.
Most of the water that flows in the Rio Grande starting in Del Rio is supplied by the Conchos River in Chihuahua.

The letter from the delegation in Texas was sent to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. It’s responsible for funding the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) — the very organization that enforces the treaty and uses those same congressional funds to build the infrastructure necessary to address the water shortage.

When asked on a press call how withholding those funds would incentivize Mexico to release the water, Cornyn said, “We are more than happy for this to be a negotiated outcome. But we're running out of ways to get the attention of the Mexican government. And I believe that this is one necessary step we need to take.”

A reporter mentioned the delegation’s letter during Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s daily morning press conference on Wednesday.

“There is still no date set for any decisions to be made,” he replied. “As elections approach and tensions rise, these issues gradually come up. And we need to attend to them, but there is no problem.”

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) speaks with media at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
Graeme Sloan
Sen. John Cornyn

In February, the only sugar mill in Texas based in the Rio Grande Valley closed down from the lack of water, cutting 500 jobs across 100 independent growers in the co-op. The closure represented a $100 million hit to the local economy.

Mexican farmers have fared no better. Just this week, an agricultural union based in northern Tamaulipas announced another major loss: 500,000 tons of sorghum from small, independent farmers in the region.

In April, Adriana Reséndez Maldonado, commissioner of the Mexican section of the IBWC, told TPR that Mexico is committed to complying with the treaty but may not have the water to do so in the current cycle.

“There is a great challenge in the future due to the drought conditions in the basin. However, joint solutions are being explored,” she explained. “In the present cycle, runoff has not been sufficient to provide the minimum volume established in the 1944 Water Treaty, so if these drought conditions continue, it is very likely that the present cycle will end with a deficit.”

In February, Bobby Janecka, commissioner for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), wrote to the IBWC in the U.S. that it was “becoming increasingly clear that it will be hydrologically impossible for Mexico to meet its treaty obligations.”

The latest available international drought data distributed in April by CONAGUA, Mexico’s National Water Commission, showed that 75% of the country’s land area was experiencing drought in March.

The two most severe levels of the standard U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) drought classifications now affect 26% of Mexico, and more severe conditions are expected in the data for April and May.

When López Obrador was asked how Mexico plans to deliver the water it owes to the U.S., the president only made references to the political tensions Mexico has had with Texas in recent years.

“Our fellow citizens in Texas are very happy with the current relationship. In fact, I must acknowledge that even the governor of Texas has become moderate because he previously had a very aggressive policy against migrants and Mexicans,” he said. “He even placed barbed wire with razors in the river and launched operations on the Texas side to inspect freight transport brakes, causing very long lines. Fortunately, none of that is happening now. And I think it is better to have dialogue, reach agreements, and understand that we mutually need each other.”

Water has become a hot-button issue in Mexico as one of the country’s most heated election cycles draws to a close on June 2. Mexican voters will elect a new president and all new legislators.

The issue even led mainstream presidential candidates to campaign on ideas of how Mexico can avoid making its water payments in the current IBWC water cycle.

Farmers in Mexico have pressured candidates and the current government to conserve as much water as possible for its own agriculture industry, just as Texas farmers are doing in the U.S.

In 2020 during a similar situation between the two countries, hundreds of growers in Chihuahua seized a dam to stop water from flowing to the US, leading to a violent clash with Mexico’s National Guard, during which one person died.

López Obrador said at the time that Mexico appreciated the “understanding and solidarity” from the U.S. during the ordeal, which eventually led to a negotiation in which Mexico paid off its water debt.

“There's some question as to how much money might be eligible to be withheld,” said Cornyn during Thursday’s press call. “Ultimately, that's going to be a decision made by the appropriations committee and in consultation with us. And if that's not successful, we may have to resort to other more extreme measures.”

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.