McALLEN, Texas -- Melted snow providing water for irrigation had barely begun burbling down a bone-dry Rio Grande toward a thin 4-mile-wide strip of farmland straddling the U.S.-Mexico border when a war of words erupted.
Mexico wanted a traditional early release from reservoirs so spring planting wouldn't be delayed. Texas farmers, fearing a historic drought could tighten its grip again this summer, wanted to delay the release for a couple of months to ensure enough water was left to help crops survive the hottest, driest part of the year.
Dividing the Rio Grande's waters is a complicated annual undertaking governed by arcane agreements and imperfect calculations. When there's plenty of water it flows smoothly, but with farmers on both sides of the border confronting severe drought – officials expect to have about one-third of the water of a normal year – Texas officials quickly lashed out an international commission's decision to release the water, accusing it of putting Mexico's water needs ahead of drought-stricken Texas farmers in the El Paso Valley.
Mexico is guaranteed a fraction of the water from Rocky Mountain snows that drain into two New Mexico reservoirs. Once released, the water flows down the Rio Grande toward Texas, where it's diverted to Texas and Mexican farmers by dams. Local irrigation districts move the water through canals to farmers' fields.
With water expected to be scarce this year, two irrigation districts in New Mexico and Texas – which receive most of the water – decided in February to take their first deliveries in May rather than in March as they typically do. The idea was to delay the irrigation season in an effort to stretch what little water would be available to the end of the growing season.
But this posed a problem for Mexican farmers who need water to get their cotton started in late March and April. Mexico asked the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational body charged with applying the treaties governing the river and boundary, to take its share in March.
The IBWC ordered the water released, and Texas farmers accepted it, although under protest.
It's more efficient to move a lot of water than a little, especially when the riverbed has been a sandy sponge for months. Irrigation districts estimate twice as much water will be lost to seepage than delivered to Mexico in this release, and those losses come out of the U.S. share, not Mexico's.
"The March delivery request is very normal for Mexico," IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said. "What caused the concern was that in an ideal world everybody would take the deliveries at the same time because that's a more efficient way of moving water."
Farmers in West Texas are trying to make the best of the situation, planting more now to take advantage of the early release but knowing it might mean they run out of water before the end of the growing season.
"It's a mixed blessing," said Kevin Ivey, who grows cotton, pecans and other crops near El Paso. "I'm getting water on the alfalfa where I need it. However it's going to affect our total allotment by the end of the year."
The IBWC's U.S. commissioner said he followed a 1906 agreement when siding with Mexico in March. But a letter issued this month by Texas agriculture and environmental officials said the decision violates terms of the deal and "results in the protection of Mexico's citizens at the expense of U.S. citizens."
Jesus Armando Reta Mar, delegate for Mexico's agriculture secretariat in the Juarez Valley, just across the border from El Paso, was aware of Texas' unhappiness with the IBWC's recent decision, but said his farmers had no choice as they face the country's worst drought since the government began tracking rainfall in 1941.
Mexico requires its farmers to have their cotton established by May 15, so they must plant earlier, he said. With fewer wells than their U.S. neighbors, they depend more on the river water. And, they must irrigate at planting to get the cotton to germinate. Later, they can shut off water for a time without harming the plants.
Across the border, the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 supplies water to thousands of farmers on more than 69,000 acres, creating an oasis of cotton, pecan orchards and row crops that ends abruptly at the desert.
"By delaying to May, we were hoping that we could do a continuous release and we could deliver water to our water users throughout the hot months, which would be the middle of May, June, July and August," said Jesus Reyes, the district's general manager. "The way it is now, we're not sure how long our water will last now."
The new plan is to irrigate in April, shut off the spigot for May and start again in June, Reyes said.
In 2004, Texas farmers and ranchers farther downstream sued Mexico for $500 million, arguing that their southern neighbor had shorted them on Rio Grande water from 1992 to 2002. That case stalled in 2008 when a tribunal operating under the North American Free Trade Agreement decided it did not have jurisdiction.
Mark Grijalva, who grows cotton and pecans between Clint and Fabens southeast of El Paso, said he decided to plant more cotton to take advantage of the early water release and just hopes it will survive.
He planted 45 percent of his 950 acres, rather than the 30 percent he had planned, but it's still far less than during the last drought in 2003, when he planted 80 percent.
"I'm still going to be conservative," the 48-year-old Grijalva said. "You just try to be efficient and hope we don't run out of water by the end of August."