The Prospect of a Drying River

Can Laredo endure the Rio Grande’s drought?

Erick S Albarran
May 10 · 9 min read

If I were to ask you where your water comes from, would you be able to answer? For us Laredoans, this should be a rather easy question since we live right next to the source. Since Laredo’s establishment as a settlement of the New Spain colonies in 1755, its people have depended on the Rio Grande as its primary and essentially sole source of water. Since then, Laredo has consistently enjoyed water prosperity despite the region’s hot and arid climate; it’s as if the Rio Grande is the lifeblood of the city. What many in Laredo might not know, including myself just a few months ago, is that the river is imperiled by drought. Despite its massive size, the river’s flow has trended dangerously low in recent years as many parts of the river have been drying up much faster than they can be replenished, either by natural or human causes.

Before I can divulge these, it’s important to know more about the river. The Rio Grande ranks as the fourth longest river in the United States, the fifth longest in North America, and the twentieth longest in the world at 1,885 miles. This truly massive body of water begins atop the snowy San Juan mountain range of the Colorado Rockies, flows down through New Mexico, and traverses the southern edge of Texas before ultimately emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The river is replenished along the way by various tributaries (Dillworth).

Not only is it a natural border between the U.S. and Mexico, but also between Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The river has allowed numerous different socio-cultural regions along its banks to be born and flourish, including the San Luis Valley in Colorado and New Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as cities like El Paso, TX, Albuquerque, NM, and Laredo, TX, to name a few. Today, over 6 million people rely on the Rio Grande for irrigation, flood control, and municipal and industrial use (“About the Rio Grande”). Hundreds of animal and plant species rely on the river for sustenance, reproduction, and migration. The region’s climate and precipitation patterns vastly depend on the river itself since it is one of its few significant water sources. Undoubtedly, the river is a precious resource for many places, making its drought a troublesome issue for its management and apportionment between consumers.

Those hit hardest are farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole. Since priority for water rights is given to cities for municipal and industrial use over agriculture, farmers simply have no choice but to accept the water that is left over for them. As less water is available, they must learn to adapt to receiving less inches per acre of water for their crops. Many are experiencing loss of viable land to grow crops on simply because there isn’t enough water to sustain it (Finley). Farmers of the San Luis Valley of Colorado have become very concerned with their rapidly worsening circumstances. In 2018, “San Luis Valley agricultural leaders [warned] that the low flows [of the Rio Grande] may accelerate a projected loss of 100,000 acres of irrigated land, a fifth of the food production in an area dependent on farming.” Many expressed their fears regarding to their ever decreasing water supply. Greg Higel, a local alfalfa grower, said, “It’s getting scary. We’re a way over-appropriated system.” At the time, Higel’s access to a well had been cut off, and he feared he would run out of water in just 10 days.

The farmers’ plight foreshadows a fundamental problem in the management of the river: it is over-allocated. Year after year, the demand for the water of the river has far exceeded the supply. “This imbalance became acute during the 1994–2003 drought. During that drought, the water supply for U.S. agriculture in the Lower Rio Grande basin averaged 78% of the full allocation from 1994 to 1996, and 53% from 1997 to 2004” (Carter, et al. 16).This prompted action from the IBWC from late 2012 through 2016 to meet regularly and further discuss ways to alleviate the problem and better manage the river (Carter, et al. 18). El Paso, TX, is an example of proactivity, having consistently reduced their water consumption by 35% from all of its water sources over nearly 30 years, with the Rio Grande accounting for 40% of them (“Water Resources”).

To better negotiate water rights and other disputes concerning the use of the river and its surrounding areas, the U.S. and Mexico created a binational committee called the International Border & Water Commission, founded in 1889. Among the plethora of legislation they’ve passed, the 1944 Water Treaty remains one of the most disputed to this day. It stipulates that Mexico must deliver from its six tributaries at least 350,000 Acre-Feet (AF) every year, measured in five-year cycles. Should Mexico not be able to meet these demands, they must compensate the United States over the next cycle, and so on (Carter, et al. 7). For the past decade, Mexico has fallen short from their requirements, partly due to increased drought on the Mexican side of the border and malapportionment to agricultural practice. To resolve this, Mexico signed an agreement on October 21 of last year (2020) that resulted in the transfer of ownership of two border reservoirs to the United States (Walton).

Having learned about the apparent symptoms and consequences of the Rio Grande’s drought, I rushed to learn more about ways in which Laredo specifically could be affected and whether we should be alarmed as inhabitants. To get the most accurate answers to these questions, I interviewed the man in charge of coordinating the city’s water and waste management plan for the next 50 years, Gene Belmares. After hearing my concerns, Mr. Belmares was quick to assuage them. Due to Laredo’s geographic location along the Rio Grande, our part of the river is not in danger of drying up any time soon.

The Pecos River on the U.S. side and the Conchos river in the Mexican side provide copious amounts of water, so we do not rely on the snowpack that initially feeds the river in Colorado. Despite consuming nearly 35 million gallons of water per day, Mr. Belmares’ teams have determined that the Rio Grande can continue to comfortably be our sole source of water until at least 2040 because of the city’s proactivity in acquiring water rights over the years. Currently, the city is surveying other water sources as potential secondary and emergency sources in the future, including Lake Casablanca and processing salt water from the Gulf of Mexico and brackish water that flows underground. According to Mr. Belmares, the current biggest threat to our water prosperity is the fickleness of the geopolitics involved in the management of the river by the U.S. and Mexican governments, but that even then we shouldn’t feel alarmed.

This being the case, you may be asking, “Okay, so why should I care about all that you just made me read up until now? After all, you just confirmed that we actually won’t need to be at all concerned for decades to come.” To address these reactions, allow me to share with you an experience I had whilst surveying the Rio Grande along its bank by the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge. I visited the river with Mr. Belmares words in mind, and I couldn’t find evidence of imminent danger. The river seemed full and strong, just enough to discourage swimming. Shortly after approaching the river’s edge, a man sitting in his vehicle grabbed my attention and beckoned me to come to him. We exchanged names, and I told him that I was researching the Rio Grande’s drought situation in Laredo. Humberto, as he introduced himself as, told me that he was actually aware of a similar situation in Mexico, where water scarcity is widespread. He’s a retired man and a former veteran, and he goes to the river almost every weekend either with his granddaughter or by himself to drink a tall can of beer and be lulled by the sight of the flowing river. Because we were on the subject of environmental issues, Humberto asked me what my thoughts were on the Green New Deal, Biden’s performance as a president so far, and whether my beliefs align with those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. After I answered, he seemed a little disappointed and gave his two cents on the matters. He believes that the United States placing so much emphasis on environmental action is a vain effort in the face of the pollution that other countries of the world put out. “China’s really behind most of the world’s pollution, if you didn’t know. We can’t force them to stop, so why should we, you know? It’s not going to make a big enough difference,” he claimed.

A short video I took while out by the Rio Grande bank

Admittedly, I was disheartened by his adamant ignorance of the benefits of taking global environmental issues seriously, but it got me thinking about the rigid stance that some in Laredo may adopt when faced with the inevitable increasing water costs that will sustain Laredo’s water plan. If we wish to continue to enjoy our water security for as long as possible, we will have to make investments at the expense of our cheap water rates. It won’t come all at once, but we should expect a substantial difference 20 years from now, said Mr. Belmares. Of course, it can be hard to imagine the benefits today, and it’s likely that some of us today won’t be able to see the returns of our investments much farther into the future. Keep in mind, however, that the future generations of Laredoans, including Humberto’s granddaughter, will. Under Mr. Belmares’ water plan, Laredo will be well suited to meet its inhabitants’ water demands as the city continues to grow at a rapid rate. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to take a more active role as a citizen of this city by becoming more involved with the issues that it faces and how we’re posed to tackle them. The severe consequences of the Rio Grande’s drought haven’t yet manifested in Laredo as they have in other places, but they do serve as a warning; the canary in the coal mine, if you will. We’d do well to listen to its call now.

A soothing sight by the river bank

Citations

Dillworth, Donald. “Rio Grande.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/place/Rio-Grande-river-United-States-Mexico. Accessed 14 Feb. 2021

“About the Rio Grande.” U.S. International Boundary & Water Commission, www.ibwc.gov/CRP/riogrande.htm#:~:text=The%20entire%20Rio%20Grande%2F%20Rio,the%20other%20half%20in%20Mexico

“Climate change threatening to dry up the Rio Grande River, a vital water supply.” YouTube, uploaded by CBS This Morning, 22 Apr. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoaUrtJq4uM&ab_channel=CBSThisMorning

Finley, Bruce. “Vanishing Rio Grande Puts Pressure on San Luis Valley Farmers during Extreme Drought.” The Denver Post, The Denver Post, 25 June 2018, www.denverpost.com/2018/06/22/rio-grande-drought-farmers/

Walton, Brett. “U.S., Mexico Sign Rio Grande Water Agreement.” New Security Beat, 10 Nov. 2020, www.newsecuritybeat.org/2020/11/u-s-mexico-sign-rio-grande-water-agreement/.

“Water Resources.” El Paso Water, 2018, www.epwater.org/our_water/water_resources. Accessed 14 Feb. 2021.

Carter, Nicole T., et al.”U.S.-Mexican Water Sharing: Background and Recent Developments.” Congressional Research Service, 2 Mar. 2017. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43312.pdf. PDF File.

Belmares, Gene. Interview. Conducted by Erick Albarran, 16 April 2021.

Aguirre, Ivan Pierre. “The Rio Grande near La Joya, N.M., in August. Less snowpack means the river is being drained dry by irrigation demands.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/opinion/sunday/rio-grande-river-drying-up.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

Haner, Josh. “Derrick J. Lente between two plots of land” The New York Times, 24 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/24/climate/dry-rio-grande.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

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