Chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources Lyle Larson sent a letter to President Donald Trump in July asking that he take steps toward enforcement of the 1944 Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande (“1944 Treaty”).
The 1944 Treaty governs obligations for Mexico to deliver water to the U.S. via the Rio Grande and for the U.S. to deliver water to Mexico via the Colorado River. Mexico is required to deliver to the U.S. 350,000 AF annually over a five-year period from the Rio Conchos, a river in Mexico that flows into the Rio Grande just south of Presidio, Texas. The U.S. is required to deliver to Mexico 1.5 MAF annually from the Colorado River.
Larson argues, like many do, that Mexico is required to consistently provide 350,000 AF annually and uses that false assumption to point out a perceived imbalance between how the two countries are meeting their delivery obligations under the treaty and the related impacts. Larson writes:
Under the 1944 Treaty, Mexico is required to deliver 350,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water on a consistent basis to Texas, though it seldom complies, frequently abusing a provision that exempts compliance if they claim ‘extraordinary drought or serious accident,’ and leaving farmers and cities in the Rio Grande Valley at the mercy of their release schedule. Meanwhile, the United States has a spotless record honoring its obligation under the Treaty to provide 1.5 million acre-feet from the Colorado River, nearly fives the amount of water to Mexico,” Larson wrote.
This has had an adverse impact, not only on Texas, but also on the Colorado River lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona, which moved heaven and earth to meet its obligations under the Treaty in spite of unprecedented drought, as reflected in the historically low elevations in Lake Mead. The unfair and one-sided adherence to the Treaty has allowed agricultural economies to flourish in Mexico, and meanwhile, has caused economic hardship for irrigators and cities in the Rio Grande Valley who depend on this water supply. According to a recent study by the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, the loss of irrigated crop production in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region due to water shortages will result in an estimated $343.5 million loss in economic output over a five-year period.
To resolve this imbalance, Larson states that the matter “should not go unaddressed as we work through challenges with our southern neighbor on immigration, trade, and other issues.” Specifically, Larson asks the President to renegotiate the 1944 Treaty or to stop delivery of Colorado River water to Mexico until they commit to a firm water delivery schedule.
Larson’s letter to President Trump follows a similar letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which Larson argues that the architecture of the treaty—including both rivers in the same treaty is to allow for an enforcement mechanism: if one party fails to meet its delivery obligation, the other could withhold their deliveries. Because the Department of State has the final say over agreements between the two countries, Larson asked Secretary Pompeo to direct the Commissioner of the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (“U.S. IBWC”) to withhold deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico until Mexico complies with its delivery obligations. The letter to Pompeo went unanswered prompting Larson to write to the President.
Larson, as well as federal legislators from Texas, have long been interested in resolving the lack of water deliveries from Mexico. He, along with U.S. Senator Cornyn, U.S. Senator Cruz, and U.S. Representatives from the Rio Grande Valley, penned letters the previous Secretary of State outlining the issue. In addition, in 2013 U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Congressman Filemon Vela (D-TX) wrote a letter to U.S. IBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina suggesting that funding cuts may be in order if the U.S. IBWC does not take action to improve Rio Grande water deliveries from Mexico. The funding cuts never materialized, and Minute 319 has since been succeeded by Minute 323. (For background on the potential funding cuts, see “Legislators Hint at Possible Funding Cuts for Minute 319,” JOW December 2013).
Because the call to enforce the treaty is based on a false assumption of about Mexico’s delivery obligation, withholding deliveries of Colorado River water would not be an appropriate response. Given the impact of the lack for deliveries from Mexico, however, there must be a solution that benefits both countries. In 2014, JOW Editor Rodney T. Smith published an article on the Hydrowonk Blog in which he extrapolates a call that Larson had made for interstate comity as a policy direction to bi-national relations and presents an outline for a collaborative solution in which the countries could identify changes in institutions and operational structure to facilitate compliance with the treaty and firming up of Texas’ water supply. (See “Can’t Mexico and Texas Get Along on the Rio Grande?,” Hydrowonk Blog January 2, 2014).
Written by Marta L. Weismann