Farmers, Ranchers, the Railroad and Water: How the (Rio Grande) Valley was Built

Editor’s Note:  

If you’ve been following this blog for some time, you may remember reading about a cross-country move a few months back. Moving from Northern California to South Texas was a major change in cultures as well as states. It’s necessitated learning about the environmental issues (of which there are many), the climate (dramatically different), how to garden here (different climate means different viruses, etc.), and even language challenges (mine).

It’s also meant diving back into Texas history. Being Texas-born, I learned a great deal of Texas history growing up. Amazingly, in Texas, we learned ONLY Texas history until high school, where we were introduced to world history – a big eye opener!

But here is a glimpse of the history of the area where I grew up and now live again. The research was fascinating. Hope you enjoy my latest story which appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of AgMag Magazine.

Irrigation in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas

Irrigation in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas

The (Rio Grande) Valley’s history is a story of visionary land investors, ranchers who became farmers, and water that made that land commercially viable.

Farming and water have been pivotal to the Valley. But the railroad and irrigation districts built the Valley.

In 1900, the railroad planned an extension from Houston to Brownsville (Texas). A group of St. Louis businessmen formed the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company. At that time, it was the largest privately owned irrigation system in the world.

Developers had their eye on the Valley. In 1904, a group of them sold 40,000 acres to the company.

But to thrive, water was crucial for the land.

Before 1904, commercial irrigation wasn’t viable in the Valley. Four things were missing:

  1. dependable transportation (i.e. a railroad line)
  2. an efficient means of pumping water over high river banks
  3. capital investment to develop irrigation systems
  4. a cheap labor force

In 1885, many ranchers began investing in land across the river, trying their hand at agriculture and irrigation.

John McAllen, the town’s namesake, had one of the earliest farms – Ramireño, 1½ miles west of Brownsville. Irrigating approximately 90 acres from the river, he grew cotton, corn and sugar cane. Later he diversified, adding flax, hemp, potatoes, tomatoes, melons and other vegetables. As of 1885, he also grew white grapes at his Hidalgo County Santa Anita Ranch, eventually growing over 40 varieties of grapes.

A drought that ran from the 1890’s into the early 1900’s made irrigation a necessity.

French immigrant and landowner George Brulay is considered the earliest irrigator in the Valley and the person who first introduced sugar cane to South Texas. By 1876 he’d built a pumping plant with a 16-inch Atlas engine and two 80-horsepower boilers to irrigate 100 acres of sugarcane. The following year, he installed the Valley’s first sugar mill.

In 1907 a 500-foot wide strip of land was cleared from the Rio Grande River to the railroad to create a canal system. The following year an irrigation and drainage system, a settling basin and a pumping plant were constructed on the River.

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.

The Rio Grande Valley canal system being built in South Texas

The Rio Grande Valley canal system being built in South Texas

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.

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.

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.

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