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Border crisis: Water scarcity forces Texas’ last sugar mill to close

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(The Center Square) – The border crisis has taken on many forms in Texas, from crime to fentanyl poisonings to farmers and ranchers losing their livelihoods.

Another casualty of the border crisis is the U.S. State Department’s failure to hold accountable Mexican government authorities to a 1944 Treaty of Utilization of Waters, resulting in Texas’ last sugar mill shut down, the industry contends. The Rio Grande Valley is bracing for an expected initial $100 million in economic losses as a result.

The Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Association (RGVSG) announced they are shuttering operations because, it says, the U.S. federal government hasn’t held Mexico accountable for breaking the treaty.

“It is with great sadness,” the board of directors of Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. announced, “after 51 years of continuously growing and processing sugar cane into raw sugar in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the recently completed harvest and milling season will be its last.” The RGVSG was the last remaining sugar operation in Texas after the Holly Sugar Corporation sugar beet plant in Hereford, Texas, closed in 1997.

“Agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley depends on adequate reliable irrigation water deliveries,” the RGVSG said. “For over 30 years, farmers in South Texas have been battling with Mexico’s failure to comply with the provision to the 1944 water treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that governs water sharing between the two nations on the Colorado River and Lower Rio Grande. For over 25 years the U.S. State Department’s unwillingness to prioritize the citizens and agricultural producers of South Texas has led to numerous water shortages in our area.”

Without the State Department’s support, the association said, “all attempts to negotiate timely water releases for Mexico have failed.”

Over the past 50 years, the association invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the local, state and national economies, it said. The RGVSG includes over 100 local growers of sugarcane on more than 40,000 acres that employs roughly 500 workers annually.

“Despite our grower’s deep desire to continue this legacy for future generations, without reliable supplies of irrigation water and the necessary crop insurance provisions and administrative guidelines to pay to maintain acres, the company has no choice but to close its doors,” it said. “We regret the impact our closure will have on communities across the valley, especially those closest to the mill in La Villa Santa Rosa and Edcouch.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said, “Mexico’s failure to abide by the 1944 Treaty of Utilization of Waters hurts South Texas farmers and ranchers, including the 500 full-time and seasonal employees Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers employs. Mexico must comply with the treaty and deliver on its water obligations.”

Despite his and others’ efforts, farmers and ranchers in South Texas have come up dry.

Earlier this month, the RGVSG board of directors met with International Boundary and Water Commission officials who oversee the treaty and water usage stemming from two international reservoirs shared between Texas and Mexico: Lake Amistad and Falcoln Lake. Mexico has historically been releasing water storage from Lake Amistad to Mexican growers, not to Texas growers, and the U.S. federal government hasn’t stopped it. Recently, Mexican officials killed any agreements to release water to Texans, even running ads in Mexico City to protest compliance with the treaty, according to news reports.

With no water released to Texas growers expected for the rest of the year, sugar crops were no longer viable.

Requests for comment from the governor’s office and attorney general’s office were not immediately returned. It remains unclear what legal recourse the state has, or if any legal action were taken, if a resolution would be reached in time to save Texas’ last sugar mill.

In Texas alone, more than 8,000 jobs rely on the domestic sweetener industry, the RGVSG says. Its growers have typically contributed more than 10% of the total gross revenues the Rio Grande Valley generates from agriculture each year. The RGVSG has been one of the top 10 producers of raw sugar in the United States.

The modern-day sugar industry began in South Texas in the early 1800s. By 1913, five major sugar mills were operational in the Rio Grande Valley. But because of factors associated with World War I, they closed in 1921. In the 1960s, feasibility studies were launched to assess if sugar cane production could thrive in south Texas.

By 1970, a cooperative of 100 South Texas farmers first built a new mill and establish sustainable crops, the association says. By December 1973, they completed their first harvest. Five decades later, the 126 member-owned cooperative operated in three counties, and was processing more than 1.5 million tons of sugar cane, nearly 160,000 tons of raw sugar and 60,000 tons of molasses annually. Their operational budget was more than $32 million.

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