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Rio Grande presents false sense of safety, agents say
Three suspected migrants latest victims of deceptive currents

08:54 PM CDT on Friday, April 8, 2005

HARLINGEN, Texas – Irrigation season in South Texas presents special drowning dangers for migrants, who don't realize the seemingly placid Rio Grande churns beneath the surface from dam releases upstream.

Border Patrol agents working the southernmost section of the river pulled three bodies out this week.

"The currents are very treacherous, even though it looks OK across the top," Agent John Guinn said Friday. "

The drowned men had no identifying documents, one clue they were likely migrants. Migrants typically remove outer clothing and put it in a plastic bag while they cross the river, either by wading or using an inner tube.

The bodies – one found Tuesday and two Wednesday – were at different points of a 100-mile stretch of the river from Brownsville to Falcon Lake.

Besides being the international boundary, the Rio Grande is the irrigation source for vegetable fields and citrus groves throughout the Rio Grande Valley and northern Mexico.

Somnolent during the harvest and winter months, the Rio Grande suddenly races in March as both countries release water from two shared reservoirs south of El Paso.

Mexico continues large releases through May; the United States' peak release season stretches into July.

The river also can swell after heavy rains. In September, two Border Patrol agents drowned after currents capsized their boat.

Border Patrol boats were warned Friday that the river was 2 to 3 feet above normal, spokesman Roy Cervantes said.

Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission in charge of overseeing water usage, said a gauge upstream from one of the drownings measured the current Friday at 312 cubic meters per second, up from 66 cubic meters per second on March 22.

The flows seem especially strong because the region is coming out of years of drought, when the water just wasn't there to send.

In 2002, Falcon Lake was at less than 10 percent capacity. It is now about 64 percent full.