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Updated: Saturday, May. 5, 2001 at 20:54 CDT

High and dry; Sandbar blocks flow of Rio Grande into Gulf

By Rebeca Rodriguez
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

BOCA CHICA BEACH -- Sea gulls soar overhead and a breeze blows over this desolate strip of beach known as the "little mouth."

Boca Chica is the southern tip of Texas and the spot at which the mighty Rio Grande is supposed to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. But in early February, a sandbar began forming between the two bodies of water, causing the already low river to stop flowing. The land mass, which started out small, has widened to about 50 yards.

The unusual phenomenon, which some say occurred briefly during the drought of the 1950s, demonstrates the growing competition for natural resources, especially along the Texas-Mexico border where cities are experiencing unprecedented growth rates.

"We've long outgrown being a nation of vast natural resources," said Mary Lou Campbell, a member of the regional water planning committee that extends from Eagle Pass to Brownsville. `We've all got to realize how we impact our resources."

The Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo as its known to Mexicans, has been at lower-than-normal levels because of drought and a lack of water flowing into the river from Mexican reservoirs. A treaty calls for the United States and Mexico to release a certain amount of water to ensure that the river's flow remains healthy. Mexico is in default on that agreement.

But unfortunately, Campbell said, Mexico's water is a drop in the bucket.

"No one wants to hope for a hurricane, but that would fix it," said Paul Montagna, a professor at the University of Texas Marine Sciences Institute in Port Aransas.

Montagna studies areas like Boca Chica, where rivers flow into other bodies of water and where exchange of plant life, organisms and water types occurs.

"Mixing is really important," Montagna said. "In this case, the river may start going hypersaline. It will get briny and start to kill off some of the organisms in the river."

Although Boca Chica and its Mexican counterpart, Playa Bagdad, boast no hotels or restaurants, they do attract people who want to fish at one of Texas' two estuary zones. The other is where the Brazos River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

"I've never seen it like this," said Manuel Buenrostro, 60, a Mexican from Saltillo who was visiting the area last week to fish. "It takes a constant flow for the fish to survive. There are no fish here now."

The sandbar has also created a problem for immigration officials along the border.

Boca Chica Beach is not an official checkpoint. U.S. Border Patrol officials patrol the area because people have been known to swim across the river at its mouth. But since the sandbar formed, agents have maintained around-the- clock surveillance of the area because one can now literally walk from Mexico into the United States, or vice versa.

Three metal poles have been plunged into the ground -- the border patrol's attempt to fashion an ad hoc line across which U.S. citizens and Mexicans should not cross. Until the river begins flowing again, agents will continue to sit in their white and green SUVs all day, peering through binoculars to make sure that things remain under control.

Montagna said the river situation shouldn't last more than a year before things return to normal.

For now, millions of people and acres of farmland will continue to rely on the Rio Grande for sustenance. But eventually, something will have to give, Campbell said.

"Many people are of the opinion that we can no longer depend solely on the river for our water supply," Campbell said. "We're looking at desalination technology for Gulf and groundwater. There are problems, but the technology is become much more sophisticated, and it could make a real impact."

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