U.S. Water News Online
BOCA CHICA STATE PARK, Texas -- The once-mighty Rio Grande
is so tapped out it doesn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico anymore.
Nine years of drought, a proliferation of choking river weeds, and
the use of water by farms and municipalities have taken their toll on
the nation's second-longest river, which serves as the boundary
between Mexico and the United States.
Once a navigable waterway that swelled under bridges and made
fertile an otherwise dry coastal plain, the river becomes a mere
trickle before it gets to the Gulf of Mexico, disappearing about 300
feet short of its destination in a big expanse of sand.
The actual U.S.-Mexico border is now marked by a few sticks in
``My parents are still alive -- Dad is 83, Mom 76. They've never
heard of something like this,'' U.S. Border Patrol agent Reynaldo
Would-be illegal immigrants need only walk up the beach that used
to be an estuary to reach the border, where U.S. agents are posted to
stop them from coming across. Horses and cattle can wander across,
meaning added work for the ``tick patrol,'' federal agents known to
lasso animals that may be carrying fever ticks that could devastate
The sandbar replaced the river mouth around March and has
continued to grow. The river ends in a placid, almost crystalline
pool on the Mexican side, so shallow that Mexicans have taken to
wading around the water with fishing poles.
The river creates an approximately 2,000-mile border between Texas
and Mexico, serving as a gateway for North American Free Trade
Agreement commerce. It serves roughly 1 million people on each side
of the border, with agricultural interests and municipalities drawing
from the river in a complex system of 1,600 water-rights accounts.
Old photos show a river deep enough and wide enough at its mouth
for ocean-going ships. At Brownsville, which is about 10 miles from
the Gulf, the water was about 100 feet across decades ago. Now it has
been reduced to maybe 15 or 20 feet across. Sometimes it goes dry
Grain sorghum, cotton, and corn fields -- mostly on the Mexican
side of the border -- are wilting, in part because of the lack of
For several days in May, water released from the Falcon Dam just
south of Laredo did not reach Matamoros, Mexico, the last city to
receive Rio Grande water, causing at least 100,000 city taps to run
dry. Matamoros officials are now talking about rationing.
At Falcon Dam, the water is so low that the rubble of towns that
were flooded when the dam was built in 1953 has emerged from the
depths. Some people on the Mexican side have even moved into the
There is no talk of dredging. The official solution seems to be to
wait for a tropical storm or hurricane, for which South Texas is long
overdue. Such storms, which tend to occur during the summer and early
fall, can provide enough water to fill the Rio Grande and its dams.
The situation for U.S. farmers and municipalities may improve by
the end of July, when Mexico is due to release half of the nearly 500
billion gallons of river water it owes the United States under a
One problem is the nonnative hyacinth and hydrilla, weeds that
have no natural predator in the Rio Grande. Since Mexico will not
agree to the chemical controls U.S. officials have suggested,
machines may be brought in to tear out some of the weeds. But they
are expected to grow back.
Environmentalists are concerned about the loss of the estuary, a
sheltered area where salt water mixes with fresh water to create a
natural nursery for shrimp and other marine life.
``As water evaporates it will get hypersaline. All the freshwater
stuff will die,'' University of Texas marine biology professor Paul
Montagna said. ``It's become more like a stagnant lake than a river.
Any organisms that need to use this as a nursery can't get out.''
The shrimp loss already is noticeable, said Tony Reisinger, marine
extension agent with Texas A&M University at Edinburg.
Environmentalists say now is the time to revamp international
water-use plans to protect natural resources.
``I think it'd be a blessing if we did have a (weather) event, but
in the long run we are going to have to plan,'' Reisinger said. ``The
major user of water here is agriculture. Some of the transport
methods are antiquated -- open canals, ditches with high evaporation
rates and a lot of leakage. I think they could probably start there
and save enough water.''
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