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Texas Delegation Urges Congress to Withhold Aid to Mexico Over Water Treaty Dispute

A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers are demanding appropriators withhold funds for the country until Mexico lives up to its end of a 1944 water treaty that requires it to send 1.75 million acre-feet to the U.S. every five years.

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The Rio Grande at Los Ebanos in Hidalgo Co. on Jan. 14, 2022. The United States is on the right, Mexico on the left. Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
The Rio Grande at Los Ebanos in Hidalgo Co. on Jan. 14, 2022. The United States is on the right, Mexico on the left. Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
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BY MATTHEW CHOI / THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON — Texans in Congress are threatening federal funds for Mexico, escalating a dispute over Mexico’s obligations to deliver water to the United States.

A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers are demanding House and Senate appropriators withhold funds for the country until Mexico lives up to its end of a 1944 water treaty that requires it to send 1.75 million acre-feet to the U.S. every five years. Mexico has until October of next year to fulfill the requirement, but has more than 700,000 acre-feet left to deliver, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission (Acre-feet is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land with one foot of water.)

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The inconsistent deliveries from Mexico have exacerbated water shortages impacting South Texas farmers, the lawmakers say. The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers sugar mill had to close in February due to repeated water shortages after 50 years. It was the last sugar mill in Texas employing over 500 workers. Hidalgo County had to extend a drought disaster declaration in April.

“Farmers and ranchers across South Texas remain under continued financial strain and could suffer a similar fate as the sugar industry, should Mexico continue withholding water,” the lawmakers wrote in a Friday letter to House and Senate appropriators.

They continued: “As efforts at negotiating a reasonable compromise between our countries have failed to produce an amenable solution for our constituents, we urge you and your colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to withhold designated funds from Mexico until Mexico has agreed to provide more reliable and consistent water deliveries to the United States.”

Mexico asserts it is limited in its ability to deliver water due to drought conditions on its side of the border. It has technically not violated the terms of the treaty because it does not require water to be released in even intervals during the five-year period.

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The lawmakers’ Friday letter does not specify what kind of federal funds to Mexico should be impacted. The U.S. government committed over $138 million in assistanceto Mexico in the last fiscal year.

Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and U.S. Reps. Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen; Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio; Nathaniel Moran, R-Tyler; Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo; Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock; and Keith Self, R-McKinney all signed on. Cuellar and Gonzales are both on the House Appropriations Committee.

Texans on the border have been highlighting the water treaty in Congress and with the White House for months.

Cornyn has repeatedly pushed the point with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Cruz and Cornyn said in a February statement that “The U.S. must use every diplomatic tool at its disposal to ensure Mexico’s compliance. We will continue to look for ways to support South Texas’s agriculture community, which is suffering from a lack of water.”

There is only so much Congress can do to enforce a treaty already on the books. The State Department is largely responsible for negotiating more water to be released.

Gov. Greg Abbott has similarly pushed the issue. Officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality negotiated with the Mexican government in 2020 along with the Trump administration to push Mexico to release its water before the end of the last five-year cycle.

Mexico has also had its own complaints about the treaty. The country’s government has said Abbott’s use of floating buoys to deter migrants from crossing the Rio Grande violated the terms of the treaty because the buoys were potentially on the Mexican side of the river.

Mexico and the United States ratified the 1944 treaty to equitably distribute water from the Rio Grande and to cooperate in managing its flow.

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