Boca Chica State Park, Tex. The once-mighty Rio Grande is so tapped out it
doesn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico anymore.
Nine years of drought, a proliferation of choking river weeds and the drawing off of water by farms and municipalities have taken their toll on the nation's second-longest river, which serves as the boundary between Mexico and the United States.
Once a navigable waterway that swelled under bridges and made fertile an otherwise dry coastal plain, the river becomes a mere trickle before it gets to the Gulf of Mexico, disappearing about 300 feet short of its destination in a big expanse of sand.
The actual U.S.-Mexico border is now marked by a few sticks in that sand.
"My parents are still alive Dad is 83, Mom 76. They've never heard of something like this," U.S. Border Patrol agent Reynaldo Guillen said.
Would-be illegal immigrants need only walk up the beach that used to be an estuary to reach the border, where U.S. agents are posted to stop them from coming across. Horses and cattle can wander across, meaning added work for the "tick patrol," federal agents known to lasso animals that may be carrying fever ticks that could devastate U.S. livestock.
The sandbar replaced the river mouth around March and has continued to grow. The river ends in a placid, almost crystalline pool on the Mexican side, so shallow that Mexicans have taken to wading around the water with fishing poles.
The river creates an approximately 2,000-mile border between Texas and Mexico, serving as a gateway for North American Free Trade Agreement commerce. It serves roughly 1 million people on each side of the border, with agricultural interests and municipalities drawing from the river in a complex system of 1,600 water-rights accounts.
Old photos show a river deep enough and wide enough at its mouth for ocean-going ships. At Brownsville, which is about 10 miles from the Gulf, the water was about 100 feet across decades ago. Now it is down to maybe 15 or 20 feet across. Sometimes it goes dry altogether.
Grain sorghum, cotton and corn fields mostly on the Mexican side of the border are wilting, in part because of the lack of irrigation water.
For several days in May, water released from the Falcon Dam just south of Laredo did not reach Matamoros, Mexico, the last city to receive Rio Grande water, causing at least 100,000 city taps to run dry. Matamoros officials are now talking about rationing.
At Falcon Dam, the water is so low that the rubble of towns that were flooded when the dam was built in 1953 has emerged from the depths. Some people on the Mexican side have even moved into the homes.
The situation for U.S. farmers and municipalities may improve by the end of July, when Mexico is due to release half of the nearly 500 billion gallons of river water it owes the United States under a water-sharing treaty.