Naked City

Tapped Out

On a recent field trip to Boca Chica near South Padre Island, Tom Miller, who runs the Environmental Studies Center at Laredo Community College, found the Rio Grande in the middle of an existential crisis: To flow or not to flow? For the first time on record, the once-mighty river, stricken by an ongoing drought, hampered by exotic weeds, and tapped heavily for irrigation, has stopped about 400 feet short of the Gulf of Mexico, dammed in place by a small sandbar. "You can see where the river mouth was," says Miller. "It's really phenomenal."

The drying up of the Rio Grande raises concerns for the economy and ecology of South Texas, while shedding light on the struggle the state faces with regional water planning. Farmers are contending with the impact of an 8-year dry spell that has diminished crop yields, while cities and towns on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are considering a variety of conservation measures to help offset the lack of rain. The drought's economic impact to the lower Rio Grande Valley has been estimated as high as $498 million per year, according to a team of researchers at Texas A&M University. Meanwhile, a variety of aquatic species that breed in brackish estuaries (where salt- and freshwater mix) remain in jeopardy as long as the riverbed runs dry.

"I hate to talk about the canary in the coal mine," says Larry McKinney, director of aquatic resources for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, "but ecologically, it's a very serious situation." Game fish such as red drum, spotted sea trout, and snook, which is only found at the mouth of the Rio Grande, can no longer make their reproductive migration; likewise, commercially important shrimp stocks will not be able to breed until the Rio Grande delta connects again to the gulf, which spells trouble for an ailing shrimp industry. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned," McKinney continues. "We have a lot of other rivers that could see similar issues in the state of Texas."

McKinney hopes that regional water planning efforts currently being instituted under Senate Bill 1, passed in 1999, and planning provisions in the recently passed Senate Bill 2, will help the state avoid similar crises in the future. The two bills were designed to meet irrigation and municipal needs for 16 different regions. The Lower Colorado Region plan calls for four small reservoirs and additional irrigation amenities, and carries a price tag of $256 million. Planning for the Rio Grande Region calls for one major reservoir, which should cost around $930 million. Because of "climatic gradients" across the state, McKinney explains, southwest Texas tends to be dry and have fewer rivers, while water tends to be concentrated farther east -- whether it's ground water, rivers, rain, or all of the above.

Meanwhile, with 90% of the water rights on the American side of the lower Rio Grande claimed by agricultural interests, and with a wide range of international issues scarcely addressed, nobody expects that Texans alone can save the Rio Grande. Most experts agree that Mother Nature will have to take the first step if the river is going to make its date with the sea. Says biologist (and Texas A&M International professor) Tom Vaughan of the Rio Grande International Study Center: "The solution to the problem we're facing right now is a couple of good hurricanes."

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Rio Grande, Tom Miller, Larry McKinney, Tom Vaughan

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