The Heat Is Online

Drought, Overuse shrinks Rio Grande

Drought reduces Rio Grande River to a trickle
weather.com
, June 28, 2001

Once the second-largest river in the nation, the Rio Grande now turns to a trickle and then disappears about 300 feet before it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Experts blame the river's demise on drought, the growth of choking river weeds and municipalities that draw off the river for their water supplies.

"My parents are still alive - - Dad is 83, Mom is 76. They've never heard of something like this," said U.S. Border Patrol agent Reynaldo Guillen of the Rio Grande, also the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

The river used to be wide and deep enough at its mouth for ocean-going ships. Now, at Brownsville, Texas, about 10 miles from the Gulf, the river is now only 15 to 20 feet across. In some patches, it goes completely dry.

At Falcon Dam, houses that were flooded when the dam was constructed in 1953 are now inhabited on the Mexico side. In Matamoros, Mexico, officials are talking of water rationing after 100,000 city taps ran dry in May.

The water loss also impacts the estuary, a sheltered area where saltwater and freshwater combine to make 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."

Hope may come at the end of July for U.S. municipalities, when Mexico is set to return nearly 500 billlion gallons of river water it owes the United States under a water-sharing treaty.

Still, environmentalists say an international water-use plan is called for to stave off further drought-induced river recession.

"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," said Tony Reisinger, marine extension agent with Texas A&M University at Edinburg.

"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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.