ZAPATA, Texas (Border Report) — The Rio Grande is at its lowest levels in almost three decades in rural Zapata County, and there isn’t enough water to be drawn for the 15,000 border residents who depend on it as their sole water source, Border Report has learned.
Dry rocks jut from the shores of Falcon Lake, where the Rio Grande runs into before it continues to the Gulf Coast. Stakes in the middle of the lake — used to mark the international boundary line with Mexico — stand feet exposed above the water line, which dwindles daily.
“The water has receded so much that they might not be able to take water out,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this region of deep South Texas.
The current water level in Falcon Lake is only at 11%, according to the National Weather Service.
Daily triple-digit heat for the past three weeks has caused the water to drop 3 inches per day. That has left the lake with and only a foot of water above a 30-foot mass of mud and silt below, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell said.
The thick silt and low water levels prevent county pumps from drawing in water, and Rathmell worries that any day, the county could be without any drinking water.
“It’s a dire situation,” Rathmell told Border Report on Thursday as he gave a tour of Falcon Lake from atop a catwalk where the county’s pumps draw water. “It’s our only source of water for our residents. So it’s vital for our community to exist.”
The pumps now sit idle. County officials have brought in a portable pump, which they hope will be able to siphon some water off the top of the drying lake. But Rathmell says they are watching it “day to day” and fear soon they will completely run out of usable water.
“It’s a very critical situation due to the lake being almost 70 years old since constructed and impounded and sedimentation during those years have left upper reaches of the lake, where our water intake structure is, with as much as 30 feet of just silt and mud. There’s no depth of the river at this point and we’re struggling to pull water and treat for our residents,” Rathmell said.
County officials have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a $1 million emergency assistance grant. They have also asked state and federal officials for help.
Cuellar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, says he is trying to get funding from Congress for Fiscal Year 2023 to dredge Falcon Lake. But that also would require permission from the International Boundary and Water Commission, which regulate this international river with its Mexican counterparts.
In the meantime, Rathmell has declared a county emergency, and water restrictions have been ordered for local residents.
Retired banker Renator Ramirez used to own the golf course in downtown Zapata until he sold it to the county six months ago. He says it was popular for its green fairways and tall palm trees. But now, the grass at the Los Ebanos Golf Course is brown and dry because of water restrictions, and the day we visited it was empty.
“This used to be like the Masters. It used to be completely green. We were really proud of it. So now here we are; absolute drought and dry grass,” said Ramirez, 82, as he tooled around in an electric golf cart.
Falcon Lake was formed in 1954 when the Falcon Reservoir was built 30 miles downstream, forcing residents of the former town of Zapata to relocate to higher ground about 3 miles from the border.
Rathmell says that was an extreme hardship on families here but they did it because they were ordered to by federal officials, at the time, in order to safeguard from flooding residents living downstream in the Rio Grande Valley.
Now there are over 1 million residents in the Rio Grande Valley who have been spared flooding and have adequate water supplies, thanks to the dam.
Rathmell says federal officials should step up and help Zapata County now.
“This community sacrificed. They had to sacrifice their homes, their lands for the construction of Falcon Lake,” Rathmell said. “The federal government should be responsible for making sure the residents of Zapata County have adequate drinking water and they should bear the cost of these costs that currently the taxpayers of Zapata County are having to endure.”
He says that other border communities should also be forced to ration water to help.
Dry tocks are exposed July 28, 2022, on the banks of Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. Right: The county’s water pumping system isn’t working because lake levels are too low due to drought. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
Melissa Cigarroa, board president of the Rio Grande International Studies Center, a Laredo-based nonprofit that studies the river, says more aggressive actions need to be taken now to prevent future drying up and sedimentation of the river.
The Rio Grande is also the only source of drinking water for Laredo’s 250,000 residents who are about an hour’s-drive west of Zapata.
Cigarroa says the thick silt not only reduces water depth but also makes it easier for migrants to walk across.
“Sedimentation creates security issues and water issues because when the river becomes shallower (due to sedimentation) it is easier to cross in places and more water is lost to evaporation. We must address this up and down the Rio Grande,” Cigarroa said.
Her organization is behind a movement to create a Binational River Corridor between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo to enhance conservation efforts on both sides of the river. And she says if it gets off the ground in Laredo, then they hope to expand it to other parts of the border, to areas like Zapata.