Scorched Valley: Impacts of Climate Change in the RGV

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago 

Edited by Abigail Vela 

As the years have passed, each summer seems hotter than the previous one. Most recently, the blistering Texas heat seemed to go on long into the Fall and brutally cut our Winter short. It’s not just platica when the person next to you in line at the grocery store makes remarks like “este verano va ser aun mas caliente que el año pasado.” They’re really on to something!

  

2023 was the second hottest summer in Texas history, with average high temperatures of 98.3 degrees Fahrenheit. That is not a guarantee that the summer of 2024 will set record numbers, but it does point to an upward trajectory of rising temperatures.

 

The recent hot and often dry weather conditions are driven by climate change. We are acutely aware of its existence but often don’t realize how its adverse effects are hitting close to home. Many issues in our communities, like flooding, air pollution and high temperatures, are all linked to climate change, something we’ve reported on in the past.


The rising temperatures and dryer summers have already led to economic losses and water shortages. For our communities to be prepared for the future, it’s essential to understand how these issues currently affect us and find ways to get involved to help mitigate some of them.

Four squares showing the progression of the Rio Grande over the years. The river is shrinking and vegetation is drying up and tie progresses.
As temperatures have gotten warmer over the years and droughts have persisted, the Rio Grande, the main source of water for many farmers, has gotten dryer and there are concerns. Illustration by Ruby Delgado.

Ongoing Drought and Economic Loss

Due to the ongoing drought, Hidalgo County issued a disaster declaration on Apr. 9. Since then, the county has extended the declaration indefinitely. Cameron County also issued a similar declaration earlier this month in response to the drought and low water levels. 

McAllen is currently on Stage 2 of the city’s Water Conservation and Drought Contingency Plan, and water levels at the Amistad and Falcon Dam are currently at 22%. This restricts sprinkler systems on certain days, and residents are asked to do their best to conserve water. 

The ongoing drought has been caused by a couple of reasons. One of which is the current drought that the RGV has been experiencing. The other is an ongoing water debt Mexico has failed to pay. Under the terms of a 1944 water treaty, Mexico is supposed to release 35,000 acre-feet of water to the U.S. over five years. The current deadline isn’t up until October 2025, but Mexico has fallen behind due to a persistent drought. There is fear that the debt won’t be paid in full.

A screenshot of a Facebook post regarding a disaster declaration in Cameron County.
Cameron County extended its disaster declaration in early April due to the ongoing drought. Photo obtained from Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr.’s Facebook Page.

Due to water shortages, there have been huge economic losses here in the RGV. In March Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. was forced to close the last sugar mill in the RGV after 50 years of operation. The closures lead to the loss of about 500 jobs. 

Many more farmers throughout the RGV have reported crop damage especially corn, due to the high temperatures and ongoing drought. 

Although it may seem like bureaucratic and political failures, the closure of the sugar mill and crop damages are perfect examples of how climate change is deeply affecting our communities. Everything from our economy to our food supply. 

 

Lupita Sanchez, executive director of Border Workers United, a non-profit organization that advocates for workers’ rights, commented on the current crisis. 

 

Ya no podemos seguir pensando en mejorar la economía de nuestro país o del condado o del área de donde estás hablando sin estar pensando en en la protección medio ambiental,” [We cannot continue thinking about improving  the economy of our country, county or area without thinking about environmental protection] she said. 

Getting Involved and Informed

Although our current water shortage and ongoing drought may seem out of our control, there are small ways we can get involved to help mitigate the issue. 

 

For one, we can conserve as much water as possible and be mindful of water consumption.


Some ways to achieve this are: only running washing machines and dishwashers for full loads and fixing any leaks. Local businesses can also invest in water-saving technology in their buildings and try to enact more
sustainable practices


We can also be more mindful of where we buy our food and urge our farmers to be open to changing their farming practices. Over the years, to meet food demands across the country, farmers have grown
overtly reliant on water from the Rio Grande, and with the current drought and water shortage, this poses problems. 


“Entonces, al final del día, lo tenemos que poner en una balanza y pensar si es más importante el dinero que asegurar la vida, porque la agua y la comida es lo que los mantiene vivos,”
[At the end of the day, we have to put it on a scale and determine what’s most important, money or safeguarding life? Because our water and our food is what keeps us alive] Sanchez said. 

A person going down a road of orange trees picking the fruit. In the background, there are palm trees and tractors picking vegetables.
A farm worker picking oranges, the citrus industry is prominent in the RGV. Illustration by Ruby Delgado.

It’s scary to think of a future where our area is hit with constant heat waves and droughts. However, climate change will not disappear overnight, so our communities need to start discussing a future where water is not as accessible and what we can start doing to prevent that. 

Mira Más

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