SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Border Report) — The U.S. Commissioner for the International Boundary and Water Commission says she’s “sounding the alarm” on the seriousness of the drought in South Texas and said Congress unfairly allocated federal funds to help those suffering from drought in the West but not those on the Texas-Mexico border.
“I’m really trying to emphasize the urgency of what’s going on in the Rio Grande,” U.S. IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner said in an exclusive interview with Border Report.
Giner was a panelist at the NADBank U.S.-Mexico Border Environmental Forum, during which bankers, investors and government leaders from both sides of the border spent two days discussing environmental issues along the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Giner said Congress recently appropriated $4 billion through the Inflation Reduction Act that will provide relief funds “to stabilize the system on the Colorado River” basin to help farmers and ranchers and residents out West. But she said “zero” funds were approved in that bill to provide relief for the South Texas drought.
“My role at this conference was to educate the public as far as what needs to be done on the Rio Grande that brings parity to what’s being done on the Colorado River,” Giner said.
“We manage two of the largest dams in the country and so those types of resources have not come to us in order to stabilize our system here on the border,” she said.
Falcon International Reservoir and Amistad Reservoir dam the Rio Grande in South Texas, and both are at what she calls “historic lows” due to this summer’s lingering drought and triple-digit heat.
Recent rains have provided a little relief, but she says, for the most part, Washington lawmakers have not.
Zapata County, a rural ranching area, nearly ran out of water last month after 30 feet of mud and silt clogged Falcon Lake.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently approved $2 million in emergency funds for two water municipalities in Zapata County to begin dredging the international river to help remove the sediment.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar helped to secure the funds, and the IBWC found the amphibious equipment in Arizona from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages water out West.
Giner said the dredging could start next week in Zapata County if environmental permits are approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But she worries that not enough people realize that 6 million people rely on the Rio Grande for drinking water and how this could affect farm fields and food on folks’ tables in the fall.
“It is very serious and we’re working with Congressman Cuellar to bring attention to this issue,” Giner said. “Hopefully it will help to bring resources to the Rio Grande.”
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, boasted Aug. 16 that she helped to get $4 billion for drought mitigation across the American West. And last year she co-authored the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which secured more than $8 billion for water-related issues out West.
That’s $13 billion in funding for dam safety, aging infrastructure, water storage, water recycling, and $300 million over the next five years for water reclamation operations under the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. Of that, $250 million will go to the Bureau of Reclamation to create or conserve 100,000-acre-feet of water annually for the Lower Colorado River Basin at Lake Mead, according to Sinema.
“Arizona’s future depends on the strength and resiliency of our water supply. As the West continues experiencing historic drought, Arizona has led the way identifying short and long-term solutions while shouldering a disproportionate share of this crisis. I’m proud of our efforts securing $13 billion in drought resiliency funding over the past year,” Sinema said in a statement.
Cuellar, who is from Laredo and serves on the House Appropriations Committee, told Border Report that he tried to negotiate some of those funds for South Texas with Sinema.
“Sinema got that for her area. I asked her to help IBWC but it didn’t happen. The commissioner (Giner) and I have had several visits about adding a huge amount of money to IBWC and I will do my best on that in appropriations,” Cuellar told Border Report on Thursday.
Giner said they estimate $500 million is needed for sediment management in the Rio Grande but “there really is no plan.” And there is no money, she said.
Her agency has an annual administrative budget of only $50 million; and $50 million more for U.S. construction projects.
She says Washington is going to have to wake up and realize the water crisis on the southern border and sink resources into it before entire communities on both sides of the border go dry.
“We have an issue all along the Rio Grande,” she said. “From Las Cruces (N.M.), all the way down into southern Texas.”
Several border cities downstream in the Rio Grande Valley, like McAllen, Mission and Brownsville, have implemented water restrictions as municipalities fear they soon will run out of water.
“This is one of the few times that agricultural users will be getting negative amounts of water, which means the state will be taking water away from them,” Giner said of the water restrictions imposed by several South Texas municipalities and water districts.
A 1944 international treaty with Mexico divides water use between the two countries in five-year water debt and payment cycles, and the IBWC manages the international waterway.
So far in Year 2 of this current five-year water cycle, Mexico has only paid 13% of its water debt, Giner said.
But with water tributaries in northern Mexico that feed the Rio Grande woefully low, she says she doubts Mexico will be able to pay the United States all that it owes.
She says Mexican officials have greatly cut back water use — restricting irrigation to farmers in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, across from McAllen, and has reduced water rights by 40% to farmers and ranchers in the state of Chihuahua, south of El Paso.
Nevertheless, “all of these water pressures in Mexico make it very difficult for them to deliver water before the end of the five-year cycle given that they have very little water in their reservoirs,” she said.
She said what is needed is climate management and study of the Rio Grande basin and better long-term planning, as well as working with communities upstream to prevent sediment from coming downstream. She says her agency also wants to work with farmers who can use the dredged-up silt and soil, which is nutrient-rich and could help farmlands.