McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Officials with the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission were in Zapata County, Texas, on Monday, to review the dwindling levels at Falcon Lake and to decide when dredging of the Rio Grande could begin to help locals access more drinking water, Border Report has learned.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell told Border Report that IBWC officials were scheduled to visit the area on Monday and would be “viewing sites and deciding course of action” as water levels for South Texas residents who rely on the Rio Grande for their water source remain dangerously low.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this region, said he has been negotiating with IBWC officials and asking them to approve the dredging of the international river.

A 30-foot-deep mass of mud and silt had built up where the river flows into Falcon Lake. The water on top is only 1 foot deep, and about 3 inches of water are lost every day due to triple-digit temperatures and an ongoing drought, Rathmell told Border Report.

During a July 28 tour of the area, Rathmell showed how county water pumps have been unable to siphon water from the top of the lake due to the silt and mud. And he said he is worried his community will run out of drinking water “any day.”

The water level at Falcon Lake on Monday afternoon was 253.18 feet, well below the flood-stage of 301 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

(National Weather Service Graphic)

Cuellar has been working with the head of IBWC to secure what’s called a 404 permit to allow dredging of the lake.

“I have been working urgently with International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner to bring equipment to Falcon Lake from Arizona to begin the dredging of Falcon Lake as soon as possible. This is necessary to remove excess sediment at the bottom of the lake and create more water capacity,” Cuellar said in a statement.

According to an IBWC document relating to a previous dredging of a border river near El Paso, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the agency that actually issues the 404 dredging permit that is “required for excavation in, or discharge of fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands.” But the IBWC is the “lead agency” and must sign a “record of decision” for projects relating to these waterways.

A stake indicating the international boundary between the United States and Mexico on July 28 sits several feet exposed above Falcon Lake in Zapata County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Cuellar said he has secured the necessary dredging equipment and he hopes to have the equipment in place in Zapata County by Tuesday or Wednesday.

If permits are approved, he said, “the dredging process will begin immediately.”

The Rio Grande is the sole source of water for Zapata County’s 15,000 residents. The rural ranching community on the banks of the Rio Grande is about 95 miles west of McAllen and 50 miles southeast of the border city of Laredo, Texas.