(Sept. 18) HOUSTON — Texas agriculture officials, including the state’s agriculture commissioner, Susan Combs, and Rio Grande Valley’s Ray Prewett, executive vice president of Texas Citrus Mutual and the Texas Vegetable Association, both in Mission, are ready for another round in the water dispute that has many growers along the border on edge.

Combs and Prewett will be with a delegation heading to Washington, D.C., Sept. 24 to meet with administration and congressional officials in the hopes of resolving several water issues.

Prewett said their top priority, as has been during other trips to see federal officials, is Mexico’s water debt to the U.S., according to guidelines of a treaty signed by the countries almost 60 years ago.

The treaty governs water use along the Rio Grande, and Texas officials say Mexico will be delinquent by more than 1.5 million acre feet of water in October, when a five-year cycle ends. According to the treaty, Mexico must release an average of 350,000 acre feet of water per year during each five-year period.

The water dispute has led to talks between presidents Bush and Vicente Fox, but growers on both sides of the border have staged protests by blocking international bridges over the river with their tractors, and south Texas growers fear that next year crops will be limited because of the prolonged drought.

MINUTE 308

Growers have also expressed dismay about Minute 308, an agreement between the two countries that resulted in the release to 90,000 acre feet of water to the U.S. That water will return to Mexico, however, if there’s insufficient rainfall to meet northern Mexico’s municipal needs.

In late August, North American Development Bank (NADBank) officials released criteria for $40 million in U.S. water system improvements. NADBank, a bi-national organization, involving both nations’ governments, whose mission is to fund infrastructure needs along the Rio Grande, is making the $40 million in grants available to any water project along the border, whether it is agriculture-related or even in Texas.

Combs voiced her displeasure of the agreement when the announcement was made in August.

CONVENTION DEBATE

Texas produce industry officials discussed the water issues during several sessions at the Texas Produce Convention, Sept. 11-13, in Houston. Prewett said other priorities in the upcoming trip to Washington, D.C., are discussing a side agreement to Minute 308 that could release another $100 million for water system improvements, the NADBank guidelines and crop insurance issues related to the drought.

Jorge Garces, deputy manager of NADBank for the U.S., San Antonio, the $80 million ($40 million for both countries) is just a start to addressing needed water system improvements. Garces also asked for input about the proposed grant process; comments are due by Oct. 7 and can be made through the bank’s Web site at www.nadb.org.

Nick Palacios, project engineer for the Texas Water Development Board, said the organization submitted a proposal for the grant money covering 32 water districts in the Rio Grande Valley. The application, submitted Sept. 6, hasn’t been approved yet, and the funds wouldn’t cover systems on grower’s properties.