The once-mighty Rio Grande River, which runs more than 1,200 miles from its headwaters in the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico, has seen better days. Much better.

In some segments, its flow is so pitiful that the river is best described as a puddle. In other stretches, tributaries give it a bit of a push. But that natural increase in its speed and volume is sullied by the artificial boost it gets from urban water-treatment plant discharge and factory effluent. Symptomatic of its distressed state, the Rio Grande no longer reaches the Gulf, unable even to surmount a low sand bar at its mouth.

More degrading still are the politics that wrap around the river and suffocate its life. They have always been complicated, as befits an international boundary. But political complications have escalated over the past six months. In the spring, American irrigators, a subsidized class of water hogs in good part responsible for the river's demise, demanded that the Bush administration force Mexico to release 1.5 million acre feet of water stored in international reservoirs. This vast amount was owed to U.S. consumers under terms of the 1944 U.S./Mexico Water Treaty. The negotiations proved difficult, and when a resolution was announced in late June — Mexico agreed to release 91,000 acre-feet — all hell broke loose. At least it did on the American side of the border. Denouncing Mexico's action as merely an insulting token, irrigators linked up with state and congressional politicians to clamor for a better deal.

The ruckus worked in this respect. U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla (D-San Antonio) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, while sitting on a joint House-Senate conference committee haggling over a supplemental spending bill, pulled off a bit of legislative legerdemain; they snagged an extra $10 million for south Texas irrigators to offset some of their losses due to drought.

That was not the end of the maneuvering. Hoping to jack up the debate over the Rio Grande's paltry flow, four congressmen let loose a provocative press release on July 19 designed to roil the waters. Alleging that the Bush administration had "sold South Texas down the river," Rubén Hinojosa (D-Mission), Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi), Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso), and Ciro Rodriguez (D-San Antonio), whose district snakes down to the Valley, declared that an aggressive Congress could force Mexico back to the bargaining table. "If the President is not going to exercise leadership," Reyes told the Associated Press, "we will."

Their tactic of choice is a simple piece of high-stakes diplomacy: If Mexico fails to release the acre-feet of water it owes Texas farmers and ranchers, the Valley representatives vowed to submit legislation to bottle up Mexico-bound water from the Colorado River (which is also governed under the 1944 Water Treaty). There is also talk of rerouting the impounded waters into the Rio Grande Basin.

This election-year grandstanding has little chance of success. The Republican-controlled House, well aware of just how slim its hold over that body is, is highly unlikely to allow such a measure to secure a public hearing. They recognize that the potential blow-back could engulf the president and his party when they are fighting to retain the reins of power. Equally chimerical is the notion that it would be possible for Valley agriculture interests to capture the acre-feet potentially held hostage in Colorado River reservoirs. The cost to build diversionary channels or pipelines would bust the bank, and require years to construct, offering not even a trickle of aid to those thirsty for more robust streamflow.

The water fight has its point. Equitable access to the river is essential to maintaining the Rio Grande's bi-national economies. Yet these waters will be ever more difficult to secure and distribute, given the Valley's tremendous population boom; it is now home to a crowded 2.4 million people.

This demographic situation spells disaster for the region and river. To insure a high-quality of human and riparian life will require careful analysis, realistic reforms, intense investment in the built and natural landscapes, and, especially for the battered Rio Grande itself, loving rehabilitation. Alas, that's just the kind of long-term commitment that politicians, hooked on the quick fix, have shown little interest in pursuing.

Char Miller is chair of the history department at Trinity University. He is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, which won the 2002 Independent Publishers Biography Prize.


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