May 30, 2024

Tudor Uhlhorn has been too busy auctioning off agricultural equipment to grieve the “death” of Texas’s last sugar mill.

“I’m as sad as anyone else,” said the chairman of the board of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers cooperative, which owns the now-shuttered mill in Santa Rosa, a small town about 40 miles from Brownsville. “I just haven’t had a whole lot of time to mourn.”

In February, the cooperative announced that it would close its 50-year-old sugarcane processing mill, the last remaining in the state, by the end of this spring. It didn’t even make it to the end of the season, with most workers employed until 29 April. Ongoing megadrought meant there wasn’t enough water to irrigate co-op members’ 34,000 acres of sugarcane, and that effectively puts an end to sugarcane farming in the south Texas borderlands.

Co-op leadership blame this on ongoing shortages related to a US water-sharing agreement that splits Rio Grande River water with Mexico. If only Mexico had released water from its reservoirs to American farmers as decreed by a 1944 treaty, Uhlhorn told the Guardian, sugarcane might have been saved. Phone calls and emails to various Mexican consulates were not returned.

But sugarcane’s demise in Texas is indicative of many agricultural areas’ water woes. Increasingly dry farms find themselves vying with other farms, cities, industries and mining operations for dwindling resources. In 2022, drought decimated Texas cotton and forced California growers to idle half their rice fields. Water disputes are also on the rise as decreased flows in the Colorado River and other vital waterways pit state against state, states against native nations and farmers against municipalities.

“That story is playing out all across the western US,” said Maurice Hall, senior adviser on climate-resilient water systems at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). And irrigated agriculture, “which uses the dominant part of our managed water supply in most of the arid and semi-arid western US, is right in the middle of it”. Sugarcane may be the first irrigated crop to go under in the lower Rio Grande. But it probably won’t be the last.

By early March, the mill had harvested the last sugarcane crops from about 100 area producers, including from the 7,000-acre farm Travis Johnson works with his uncle in Lyford, Texas. His family has farmed this land for 100 years, but sugarcane – a lucrative crop thanks to government subsidies – was a new addition about 20 years ago.

As the lower Rio Grande’s notoriously fierce winds gusted through his phone, Johnson sounded resigned to the end of his family farm’s sugarcane era. For the near future, he’ll be growing more of the cotton, corn and grains that fill out the rest of his acreage. “It was nice to have another crop we could rely on,” he said. “Sugarcane was something that we could harvest and get money for during a time when we were spending money on our other crops.”

Though sugarcane was a reliable cash crop, it is also a water hog. In a place like the lower Rio Grande, where average rainfall is 29 inches or less a year, sugarcane requires up to 50 inches of water a year. It cannot grow here without irrigation. The co-op’s sugar mill churned out 60,000 tons of molasses and 160,000 tons of raw sugar annually, and that’s also a water-heavy business.

“So many of the steps along that process require a massive amount of water,” starting with washing cane when it comes in from the field, said journalist Celeste Headlee, whose Big Sugar podcast explored Florida’s exploitative sugar industry. (The bulk of US sugarcane is commercially in only two other states, Florida and Louisiana; less water-intensive sugar beets are grown in cooler states like Minnesota and North Dakota).

Per the 1944 treaty, Mexico is obligated to deliver 1.75m acre-feet of water to the US in any given five-year cycle (the current cycle ends in October 2025).

Burnt sugar cane is spread out at an even height at Rio Grande Valley Sugar Mill in Santa Rosa, Texas, in 2005. Photograph: Joe Hermosa/AP

“This thing worked pretty good up until 1992,” said Uhlhorn, when “we got into a situation where Mexico was not delivering their water” due to extraordinary drought – a scenario that played out again in the early 2000s. In 2022, Rio Grande reservoirs fell to treacherously low capacities. A storm eventually dumped rain mostly on the Mexican side; what fell in Texas “was enough water for maybe one irrigation, but you’d have to starve your other crops” in order to water sugarcane, Uhlhorn said. A Texas Farm Bureau publication said that Mexico currently “owes 736,000 acre-feet of water”.

Lack of water caused Texas growers to plow under thousands of acres of sugarcane during the last growing season. “So now [the farmers are] down to 10,000 acres and we’re no longer viable,” explained Uhlhorn about the decision to end production. “Even if we had the best yields ever, with our fixed costs, the mill would have lost millions of dollars.”

The Texas A&M agricultural economist Luis Ribera said: “It’s not that Mexico is holding the water because they are bad neighbors. They’re using it” because drought has plagued both sides of the border. As David Michel, senior fellow for water security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, elaborated, the entire Rio Grande [Valley] faces these challenges “from source to sea. Users on both sides of the border are going to have to define water efficiencies and conservation strategies to mitigate these pressures.” In other words, said Travis Johnson, the mill closure “is probably going to be a wake-up call for farmers in our area, whenever we do get water again, to try to conserve it as much as possible”.

In the immediate post-closure period, Uhlhorn and the cooperative members are selling off equipment to settle debts and trying to find replacement jobs for mill staff at places like SpaceX and the Brownsville Ship Channel. The facility employed 100 full-time workers and supported another 300 part-time laborers. The cooperative also reportedly shipped all remaining sugar from its warehouses more than 600 miles away to the Domino refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana, one of the hemisphere’s largest sugar processors.

The Santa Rosa sugar mill was a vital cog in an industry that generated an estimated $100m annual in economic impact from four counties in the lower Rio Grande. The loss of jobs and community revenue might well extend to the valley’s $200m citrus industry, which also is struggling to meet its water needs and survive.

“I wish I could tell you we had all the answers and we were geniuses, and we were going to avoid what happened to the sugar mill. But I can’t,” said Dale Murden, a grapefruit and cattle farmer. “Water going into the spring and summer is as low as it’s ever been, and some water districts have already notified customers they’re out [of water] for the year. Without rains and inflows and cooperation from Mexico, we are in serious trouble.”

The International Boundary and Water Commission, which is responsible for applying the 1944 treaty, began negotiating a new provision to it – called a “minute” – in 2023, with the aim of “bringing predictability and reliability to Rio Grande deliveries to users in both countries”, a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Vanessa Puig-Williams, EDF’s Texas water program director, said that if the new minute focuses on the science of how much water is actually available on both sides of the border, that would be an opportunity “to think more innovatively and creatively about how we can conserve some of those water rights”.

Either way, Michel said farmers must adjust to a thirstier reality. That might include using recycled water and tools like moisture sensors, finding better irrigation techniques and planting more drought-resistant crop varieties. And they may have to reconcile themselves to the fact “you won’t be able to do [certain things] any more just because there isn’t water”.

Chelsea Fisher, a University of South Carolina anthropologist who studies environmental justice conflicts, said lessons relevant to the current water crisis can be found throughout agricultural history. “Something that you notice across societies that manage to farm sustainably for at least several centuries is that they’re emulating relationships that already exist in nature – whether that means copying the way that wetlands recycle nutrients, whether it’s dryland farming that is very much in sync with the ways that water naturally gathers in certain places,” she said.

In fact, Johnson plans to stop growing crops that require irrigation. Instead, he’ll focus only on those that can be grown with naturally available moisture. “I don’t think [the water situation] just amazingly gets better overnight,” he said.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Hall said that the water crisis was pushing growers to ask: “What is the future that we want? And how do we move toward that future, recognizing with a clear-eyed view what the real hydrology is? … People want to continue doing what they’ve been doing. But at some point, undesirable things are going to happen. Things like sugarcane and industries and whole communities going away. Farmers who are willing to listen to what the science is telling us is going to happen, and to think about how we can do things differently: that is where the real innovation at scale is going to happen.”

Reporting for this piece was supported by a media fellowship from the Nova Institute for Health.

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