Texas sugar mill closure underscores Mexico’s water debt to US

Lawmakers urge White House to force Mexico to meet its obligations under the 1944 water treaty

SANTA ROSA, Texas (Border Report) — Miles of what once were thriving sugar cane fields in a rural part of South Texas are now just dirt due to the lack of water from Mexico on which growers rely.

The lack of water prompted the recent closure of a 51-year-old sugar cane mill, the only one in Texas and one of three in the entire United States.

Outside the now-shuttered Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc., U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, a Republican who represents part of South Texas, stood with other lawmakers and border leaders Monday.

“This crisis was caused by the Mexican government’s failure to meet its obligations under the 1944 water treaty,” she said. “It has not only jeopardized our agricultural heritage, but as we can see it has jeopardized the livelihood of over 500 workers here in the sugar mill and poses a serious threat to our region’s economy and our national food security,”

The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc., mill closed due to a lack of water from Mexico, causing the layoff of 500 people on the South Texas border. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

De La Cruz warns this could just be the first of many industries and businesses in the Rio Grande Valley adversely affected by what she calls a water shortage “crisis.”

“Absolutely dire,” she said. “When we think about water we think about agriculture first, but we also think about building and infrastructure. We think about recruiting businesses who may want to come to the RGV. Lack of water affects our community in several issues.

U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-Texas, has filed bipartisan legislation to force Mexico to repay the water debt it owes. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

De La Cruz is leading bipartisan legislation that would force Mexico to pay its debt.

Last week, she and Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents the border from Starr County west to Laredo, filed a bill “to advance efforts seeking compliance by the United Mexican States with the Treaty on Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande,” according to the text of the bill obtained Monday by Border Report.

If passed by Congress, the measure also would “establish understandings to provide predictable and reliable future deliveries of water” from Mexico.

Mexico has paid less than a quarter of the water it owes the United States during this current five-year water cycle, which ends in October 2025.

So far, Mexico has delivered 379,320 acre-feet of water. But it is required to deliver 1.7 million acre-feet by the end of the cycle.

(IBWC Graphic)

U.S. IBWC Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner has been trying to get Mexico to approve what is called a “minute” or an adjustment to the treaty, which would allow Mexico to pre-pay its water debt. But Mexico is refusing.

Tudor Uhlhorn, chairman of the RGV Sugar Growers, said Monday that when Mexico received over 10 inches of rain in August 2022, they didn’t send any of it to the Rio Grande so U.S. farmers and growers and residents could access it.

At the time, Mexico and the U.S. had both been in a drought, with only 25% of water in their respective reservoirs. But he said the rainfall filled Mexico’s reservoirs to 75%.

Uhlhorn was visibly angry Monday, saying Mexico isn’t sharing.

“We need to shine a spotlight on Mexico’s failure of the 1944 treaty,” he said.

Uhlhorn said at its height, 120 growers sent sugar cane to the mill that straddles eastern Hidalgo County and western Cameron County. Recently, though, it’s been down to about 90 growers.

The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers plant used to process sugar cane from 120 growers. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

He said the unpredictability of water led them to make the difficult decision to close the plant.

He said the irony is that now the sugar growers in Mexico will pick up the slack and supply to the United States since there isn’t a mill here to process it.

“Mexico uses our water to grow crops to compete against us,” Uhlhorn said. “The closure of this mill because of Mexico’s failure to send water directly benefits Mexico’s sugar growers.”

“For the rest of the state, it’s a loss of the sugar industry. Nowhere else in our state produces sugar,” Brian Jones, of the Texas Farm Bureau, told Border Report.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said losing a plant of this size is a loss to the local economy and sends a warning to other industries and businesses in the region.

The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers plant operated for 51 years in rural Hidalgo County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“It’s also a symbolic significance, as well. Agriculture has long been an essential mainstay in Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley. To lose a plant as important as this is to our region because of a lack of reliable source of water is to lose an important economic and cultural component of our community,” Cortez said.

“This is about the survival and health of nuestra gente — our community,” said De La Cruz, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee.

De La Cruz last month sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking that he “prioritize and engage in the enforcement of the 1944 Water Treaty.”

“Water owed to the United States has caused deep suffering for agricultural producers and communities in South Texas,” she wrote.

“The U.S. State Department has failed to hold Mexico accountable for severe delays in delivering water as required by the 1944 Treaty, producers and employees of the mill will lose their livelihoods. I expect the effects of this closure and the looming water crisis to be felt by growers across our region and implore USDA and the State Department to take immediate action,” said U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents neighboring Cameron County.

Under the 1944 treaty, Mexico is obligated to release an average of 350,000 acre-feet annually every five years. Under this current cycle, they have until October 2025 to release 1.7 million acre-feet of water.

During an IBWC meeting held in the border town of Mercedes in early December, Uhlhorn told Giner that he doesn’t believe Mexico has the capacity to hold and properly transfer the water it owes to the United States.

Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association, told Giner that the problem is there are no consequences for missing payments.

Border Report asked De La Cruz what she wanted to be done, and if that would include sanctions.

“Nothing is off the table,” she said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.


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