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By 1927, the irrigation system included three large canals, five pumping plants, reservoirs and an extensive drainage system. That year, a group of farmers who owned property in the area formed the Hidalgo and Cameron Counties Water Control and Improvement District No 9. They purchased the irrigation part of the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company. Sheriff John Closner, who become one of the largest land developers in the Lower RGV, established an irrigation facility in 1893. Irrigation made things possible. But there were problems. Inadequate drainage caused fields to become too alkaline. They wouldn’t support any crops. So in 1905 Cameron County formed the first drainage district to improve the soil. Under the 1889 irrigation law of Texas (revised in 1895), irrigation or land companies established their prior water rights through a “declaration of intent” filed with the county clerk. These included a description of the diversion’s location, the number of acres to be irrigated, the capacity of the main canal and a map.

Since the Board of Water Engineers had no power to deny a certified filing after the 1921 State Board of Water Engineers v. McKnight case, rampant over-appropriation of water continued throughout the Valley. But the over-appropriation issue was finally addressed with the Water Rights Adjudication Act, passed in 1967. It created an administrative and judicial system to help resolve water rights in Texas to stave of lengthy lawsuits. Now any appropriation from a Texas stream must be made by application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Continuing drought and other natural forces makes life for South Texas farmers increasingly complicated. But as the history of the Rio Grande Valley shows, water makes it all work down here. An environmental journalist and blogger, Debra Atlas is reachable through or

The problem? Companies inflated the number of acres they claimed to be irrigating well beyond the number they owned or even secured under option. More on this shortly. Farming irrigated land successfully requires good transportation. Most produce, being highly perishable, must be shipped out quickly. Land development companies were invited by the railroad to donate acreage for depots and rights-of-way for the railroad spur that now extended into Hidalgo County. Companies agreed, in exchange for the development of a town with a depot stop. When developers couldn’t pay expenses related to these projects, the railroad offered to pay the costs in exchange for town lots. The St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexican Railroad made such an exchange in the town of McAllen. Water was available. The railroad had its depots. What about the labor force? The Depression saw severe labor shortages. The Bracero Program in 1942 remedied this, allowing farm owners to contract with Mexican workers to clear the land. Flooding in the Valley caused extensive damage to the irrigation systems. The 1909 flood meant that many farmers couldn’t make a profit or pay for their water, taxes or installment payments on their land. The Irrigation Act of 1913 created the Board of Water Engineers and established irrigation districts. It also established a formal process for the appropriation of surface water in the state. The passage of the 1917 Irrigation Act authorized water improvement districts that didn’t include towns or cities unless they requested to be included. This allowed the Board to determine water rights to solve the problem of over-appropriation of the waters of the Rio Grande.

Photos courtesyHidalgo and Cameron Counties Irrigation District #9




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