The supply of fresh water in the Rio Grande Valley ebbs and flows radically as weather cycles between tropical downpours and prolonged periods of drought.
Despite recent rains it seems the long dry spell could not get much worse.
Joe Barrera knows it can get much worse. He is the regional water authority district manager and he worries every day for the future of water in the valley.
Barrera said, "Everyone in the valley seems to be working together, trying to put this thing together where no one really runs out. I wouldn't say we're critical but it is a serious situation; but, it seems everyone is united in working through it."
How We Get Our Water
Bulk water in the valley is measured in acre feet.
One acre foot of water will cover one acre of land or one football field one foot deep. That is roughly 325 thousand gallons of water.
The valley has two large reservoirs along the Rio Grande, Falcon Lake in Zapata County and Amistad toward the big bend in Val Verde County.
Both were built in the 1950's and are capable of holding nearly 2 trillion gallons of water.
We split that water with Mexico nearly 50/50.
The series of rivers and streams flowing into our reservoirs is enormous, covering a huge chunk of northern Mexico. Back in 1944 our two countries signed a water treaty whereby the US allows water to flow from the Colorado River out west into Mexico.
In return Mexico must allow more than 100 billion gallons of water a year to flow into the Rio Grande for our use.
To date Mexico is behind in its water payments by more than 140 billion gallons.
Mexico has a large series of dams upstream of the Rio Grande, nearly a dozen stretching from the Conchos river basin in Chihuahua to the Alamos and Salado basins in the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon.
15 more dams are slated for construction giving Mexico nearly absolute control of our water future.
Wayne Halbert manages the Harlingen Irrigation District and he believes this is the new norm. "We are going to see this kind of situation more often and mainly because a great deal of our water comes from Mexico and Mexico has overdeveloped the use for their water. So now, instead of us getting water they can't use on a regular basis, we are only going to get it in storm events."
One of the primary ways of getting water to a town in the valley is to send it by way of irrigation canals.
Some are open ditches, while others are buried.
The water must flow, in some cases 50 miles or more.
Some Valley towns need two acre feet of water a day, or just over 1/2 million gallons a day.
The water goes into the system but cannot get their on its own, it needs a push, so the water master has to keep an extra 500 acre feet of water in the canal.
That is almost an extra 150 million gallons of water just to make a delivery. This results in not a very efficient system.
The Future of the Valley's Water Supply
Valley agriculture brings in 1.2 billion dollars a year to our economy but it has a big thirst since half of our crops are irrigated. As an irrigation manager, Halbert knows when the canals start to dry up farmers feel the pinch first.
"We can see that we have a hard row to hoe right now and we need to get aggressive in times when we have plenty of water so that we can weather these storms better."
Rain or shine, the future for the valley lies in conservation and quick thinking.
The city of McAllen sucks up 25 million gallons a day.
Projects like the 1000 foot deep water well will add millions of gallons each day, while others will reuse waste water for irrigation.
McAllen TMs water manager, Roy Rodriguez, says conservation will play a big role in the future of water, We want to go to the jewels of the city, to the convention center and west side park and start using 6 million gallons a day from that treatment plant into the Laguna Madre and re-use it. "
Solutions must also be affordable.
Desalination or turning sea water into drinking water is prohibitively expensive.
Water providers have tight budgets so cost effective options like toilet to tap may be more realistic.
Toilet to tap is a proven technology where raw sewage is treated aggressively and then reintroduced back into the city's water supply.
Rodriguez hopes, maybe take that waste water from the plant, treat it and reintroduce it into our reservoirs. There it will mix with water from the Rio Grande and possibly provide us drinking water."
Joe Barrera insists irrigation districts work harder than you think to make sure mom and pop get their water but, we want them to realize without water conservation we can't keep the water we do have."
Conservation, deep wells, desalination, effluent reclamation, take your pick.
The reality is the 1.4 million people of the Rio Grande Valley will have to start making changes to the way we do water.