INTERVIEWEE: James Matz (JM)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT)
DATE: February 25, 2000
LOCATION: Harlingen, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2079 and 2080
Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It is February 25, 2000. We’re in Harlingen, Texas and we have the good fortune to be interviewing Commissioner James Matz about his many contributions, both in government and in the non-profit sector to conservation in South Texas. I want to thank you for spending the time with us.
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JM: You’re more than welcome David.
DT: I thought we might start with some of your early days and maybe you can tell us if you have early teachers, mentors, family members that might have influenced your interest in the outdoors and conservation.
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JM: Well, what comes to mind right away are—are two people. One is my father and the other is a biology teacher. And I guess to open this up, we have to talk about what this area was like in the 40’s because I was born in 1937 and, of course, spent my childhood and graduated from high school here. Folks were not really well off, our primarily recreation was hunting and fishing. And, little did I know then that the many times that we went out on the Laguna Madre fishing or we went duck hunting near the King Ranch or near Laguna Atascosa, that I was having embedded in me a real love of nature. When people asked me later when I was overseas where I was from, I would say, “I was from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. I was born with a fishing pole in one hand and a shotgun in the other.” And, I don’t know, reflecting back, those early experiences out in the middle of nowhere were—were very important. The other person was Mrs. Davis, who was a biology teacher in fifth grade. And, again, little did I know then, that what she was teaching us would have such an impact on me. But, those are two people that come to mind.
DT: Can you describe some of the fishing and hunting trips that you took with your father?
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JM: Oh, yes. And, of course, it was a grand adventure because we didn’t have anything like the road system we have today and, what we used was a small little aluminum boat with a small little outboard motor and putt-putt out to the Laguna Madre and, of course, we had the inter-coastal canal then, but to do fishing, you needed to get out in what are called the flats, or the shallow water and that was one reason for using the aluminum type boat. I—I can just, I can close my eyes now and see my mind’s eye a scene that I saw so many times as a—as a youngster where you would be in the Laguna Madre where the water would maybe a foot, foot and a half deep with the sun coming up over the South Padre Island, that beautiful, spectacular sunrise, and you’d see in front of me glassy water in the Laguna Madre and the tails of those red fish. And you would see not just one, or two, or a hundred, or a thousand, but ten thousand or more in these schools that were, that were feeding on the bottom. And, you know, you just—it was just awesome. You just wanted to stop and, you know, thank God for all the good things he’s given us, including those kinds of experiences.
DT: You mentioned also that you had this great teacher. Do you remember some of the lessons that she might have taught you or what it was that she passed on to you?
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JM: I—I remember one, one thing in particular. She asked the class what is a weed. And, of course everybody would stop and think and maybe somebody would say this or say that, you know, it would be Johnson grass or it’d be dandelions, or, you know, whatever. She said, “Nope”. She said, “That’s not the answer.” She said, “A weed is simply a plant that grows where it’s not wanted.” And that’s something that I’ve never forgotten.
DT: As you grew up, you later became a politician and a career diplomat. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about how you’ve been able to find political support for some of these conservation issues that you care about. I would think that in South Texas, as you once pointed out, that in Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Starr Counties have some of the highest unemployment rates, greatest drop out rates, and lowest per capita income. For folks like that, how do you show that the environment is not a luxury that they simply can’t afford?
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JM: Well, what—what I have done is start from the proposition that the—the youth are not the leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today. When you look at things that have happened with this country over the last several decades, I think what you’ll find, is youngsters who by and large have said, “Hey, I’m concerned. You’re using all of this up, or your polluting this or contaminating that. What is there going to be for me when I grow up and have my kids and they have their grandkids?” When I started Harlingen Proud, the first thing I did was went to the school system and met with the superintendent of schools, I met with the Board of Education and got their support to set up organizations in each campus in the City of Harlingen and then we organized our events and each campus got involved with their kids. What I found, generally, is if you can get one kid involved, there’s a good chance you’re going to get at least one parent and sometimes two in your project. And when we had our first all-valley, not all-valley, Harlingen-wide trash-bash, as we called it, we had, I don’t know, 1,600 or 1,700 people out there with garbage. That was really remarkable and that leads to the second point. Whenever you can show an elected official or politician that you can get more people out picking up garbage than vote in elections, they’re going to get on board. And that’s pretty much what happened.
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Secondly, I don’t care how rich or poor you are, most people have pride. And what you want to do is touch that pride and give people a chance then to express themselves to get involved and to do their thing. Third, you’ve got to have people understanding economics of these issues. Frankly, I don’t like the word “environmental” because it’s become so generalized and so abused in so many different contexts, that many times all you have to do is say that person is an environmentalist, or this is an environmental issue, or whatever it might be, and you’re going to get a whole bunch of people whose eyes glaze over and they don’t want to hear anymore about it. But if you would sit them down and talk economics and help them understand what it’s going to cost for them to pursue a particular course of action, or not to do something, as opposed to doing the right thing for the right reasons, many times you can get them on board and they become your very strong supporters.
DT: Speaking more of political support and supporters, as I understand it, the South Texas region is largely Hispanic, over 80% Hispanic, and when I think of the stereotypical environmentalist, it’s a white person. I’m curious how you’ve made inroads into getting more Hispanic support?
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JM: Well, I go back to that first comment I made about pride. We can go a few blocks from here and we’ll be in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the City of Harlingen and yet you can go in front of a person’s house and you can see that it’s landscaped as best they can with the funds that they have, that it’s maintained as best as they can with the funds that they have, and that they are proud of their—their home and their—their yard, as we call it here. I really, I—you know, some people say there’s a cultural difference and I don’t believe that that’s true. I—I think people are essentially the same and I think they are going to act or react to basically the same things. And—and, pride, to me, and that’s where the Harlingen Proud name came from and the Valley Proud Environmental Council name came from, is something that, if you touch it and you recognize, you can accomplish a lot of things.
DT: I guess another stereotype that you’ve been able to break down is the one that Democrats have some sort of monopoly over environmental concern. You’re a long-time Republican in a highly Democratic part of Texas, and I’m curious how you’ve been able to be both Republican yet do work on these conservation issues.
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JM: Well, this has, of course, perplexed a lot of people and embarrassed a heck of a lot of Democrats down here, but I don’t, you know, I guess to understand that, you need to understand a little more of where I’m coming from and—and what my background is. Yes, born and raised here and a lot of time in the outdoors. Lived and worked all over the world, including a lot of very poor countries like Mexico, like Bolivia, like Indonesia. But I ended up in California in the mid-70’s and that was a time when Proposition 13 was a big issue and this was a “No-Tax” proposition, stop the taxes. And, when you—I worked for Bank of America at that point in time in the President’s Executive Interchange Program and, of course, Bank of America was very anti-Proposition 13 as an institution, as was the business community generally. But I had a chance to watch and—and, at that time, again, not fully realizing the impact it was going to have on me. What happens when people become polarized on an issue, and in this case it was growth. The people who were for Proposition 13 were anti-growth basically, the people who were against Proposition 13 wanted things to stay, no, wanted—wanted growth. And that’s when I first became aware of the Coast Conservation Commission in California and I saw the so-called environmental community being maligned because they were tagged with this anti-growth group. And then, of course, Proposition 13 passed, but I don’t know how long it took for things to finally stabilize again or—in California, given the polarization that occurred. And we’ll get back to that point in just a minute. As a—when I worked for Flour Corporation, I lived in the Republic of South Africa. We had very good friends who were Afrikaners and who had a game farm and they taught me so much about conservation and the importance of game management and that sort of thing. At the same time, you’re able to see the enormous benefits from eco-tourism, people who were coming for safari, a lot of people who were not coming to shoot, but were rather to take photographs. But even those who were coming to shoot were being do—were doing that under game management plans so that it all made an awful lot of sense. And I later had a chance to go to Costa Rica and, of course, that’s an incredible country and the approach that the people there and the government are taking towards conservation makes all kinds of sense because they’re showing where the economic benefits are. So when you put, kind of, all those things together, plus the background in my family where my mother was of Swiss heritage and—and the Swiss are known for liking things clean and orderly, and that sort of thing. All of these kind of came together with me. Then you move the next step and you start looking at the economics of a lot of these so-called environmental issues.
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Water quality has been a high priority for me forever. Why? Because we depend on the Rio Grande River as our source of drinking water. Reynosa has been dumping raw sewage into the Rio Grande River, Matamoros started dumping raw sewage into the lagoon—or to the Gulf of Mexico. And we’re pumping that water out through our canals into our lakes and our holding ponds and then treating it, and that’s what we’re drinking. When I was on Harlingen City Commission, we had a new industrial client, Fruit of the Loom, come into town. They needed our reverse osmosis distilled quality water. So we took a look at providing that water to that RO [reverse osmosis]
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plant from either the water from the Rio Grande, or the effluent from our wastewater treatment plant. We found that it was—effluent treatment plant discharge was higher quality than the water we were pumping in from the Rio Grande. So what we did, set up a system where we were taking two million gallons a day out of our waste water treatment plant, treating it and giving it to Fruit of the Loom, and reusing that water. That’s when I became very familiar with what was happening with the Rio Grande and then what the cost of that contaminated, polluted water is to water treatment facilities, to the agricultural community putting that on the fields degrading the—the soil, reducing production, cop production, you know, you just go on and on. Well, is water quality an environmental issue? Sure it is. But more importantly, it’s an economic issue and it has to be addressed as such.
DT: So, you found that some of these environmental issues weren’t so much partisan issues as economic issues.
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JM: Thank you. You—you summarized it very well. And once you sit down and explain to people that these are economic issues and you get the politics out of it completely, then you start watching and they—they—they listen and are more likely to get actively involved.
DT: You’ve been noted for being able to pull together pretty polarized factions and get them to work together on controversial environmental problems, and I was wondering if you might be able to describe some examples of the kind of controversies you’ve seen boil up in South Texas. There are a couple that I’ve heard of, the pesticide use restrictions and the efforts to try and restore that aplomado falcon. Another would be the inter-coastal waterways dredging and efforts to protect Laguna Madre and, I guess a third would be brush clearing down in the Rio Grande and efforts to try and protect that corridor for wildlife. Could you touch on some of those?
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JM: Sure. Why don’t we start with the intracoastal canal, that’s a fairly recent and—and important issue, and continues to be. As you’re aware, the Inter Coastal was put in decades and decades ago and it connects the tip of Texas actually all the way around the Gulf of Mexico and then on to the east coast. It’s a very important waterway, a lot of commerce involved between ports. And down here, we have actually three ports, we have four ports. We have a Port Brownsville, which is by far the largest and—and very, very active. And we have Port Isabelle at Port Isabelle. We have Port Harlingen on the Arroyo Colorado, and Port Mansfield up in Mansfield. So, we’ve got a lot of people that are involved.
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In order for the traffic to move on that inter-coastal, the Corps of Engineers undertakes dredging through contractors periodically, whether it’s—it’s probably done on a constant rotation basis, just to keep the depths required. But what’s happened over time, is because of the method of spoil disposal, there’s been enormous concern about the impact on the Laguna Madre, which is, of course, the nursery for the Gulf of Mexico, producing shrimp and the beginning of the food chain, as well as a—a natural fishery. And, for that to—to produce, they need to have a healthy sea grass in there, that’s the bottom line. Unfortunately, in the past, when dredging was taking place, the spoil has just been pumped right back into Laguna Madre. Supposedly, this was done because it was the most cost-effective, the most economical. Of course, what nobody was taking into account was the cost on the shrimping industry and/or the fishing industry, the destruction of the sea grass beds. This came to a head, I guess it was about three or four years ago and the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation and a few others, including the King Ranch, got together and tried to convince the Corps of Engineers to modify the spoil disposal. And there are different options, but, of course, the bottom line, again, is money. It’s cheap to take that spoil material and just pump it out into the Laguna Madre. The fact that it’s going to just wash right back in within a matter of months or years doesn’t seem to bother anybody, and it didn’t seem to bother anybody it was killing a lot of sea grass. So, they threatened a lawsuit. And, that, then, got to be another one of these very polarizing situations where you have the port people in the business community and all these other folks on one side and then you had the environmentalists, so called environmentalists, but really, you know, you had economic interests in the Kings Ranch and the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation with the recreation, sports fishing, and all the rest of that.
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I decided after talking to a number of different people, that one of the big problems was nobody was talking to each other. They were talking to the press, and they were, you know, firing these shots across each other’s bows and—and nobody was really listening or, in my opinion, taking what I would call a rational approach. There—there couldn’t have been more polarization. So I decided to try to get everybody to sit down at the table so they would get to know each other. I mean, a lot of people didn’t know each other personally. They—they knew a person by their name, they knew that person by their title, they knew the person by the letter to the editor, or whatever it might be, but they had no idea that, you know, they were just like everybody else, you put your pants on one leg at a time and you could sit down and talk. So I arranged a—a meeting in Los Fresnos with a lot of different representatives and groups. And, at that point in time, Ann Richards was the Governor and she became aware of what I was doing down here and it was very interesting, because if she didn’t pick up the phone and call Ignacio Garza, who was the former Mayor of Brownsville, and chairman of Texas Parks and Wildlife, and in effect, I understand, told Nacho that she expected him to take over the leadership of this and make sure that—that the Democrats were associated with some kind of positive solution to this. Well, of course, that pleased me greatly, because it meant that what we’d done, was to raise this issue to a level where it was getting the attention of the Governor, which we needed, because we—ultimately the only way were going to solve this problem was getting more money for the Corps of Engineers and the only way we were going to get more money for Corps of Engineers to dispose of this spoil in a more responsible way, was to go through Congress, and, you know she could help do that. So that’s what happened in that particular case and I think it turned out well. Now that, you know, we don’t have the ideal solution yet, but—but I think we’re on a path. The lawsuit was filed and the Corps of Engineers understand that people are not satisfied with the status quo and it’s time to change it and we should be getting as much money to dredge here as Florida does. There’s—there’s nothing less valuable in our Laguna Madre than there is off the coast there so I think we made progress.
DT: You also mentioned you were aware of these problems with pesticides and their possible effects on the agricultural economy and aplomado falcon down here in the Valley.
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JM: Yes, I wasn’t directly involved in that solution, but I was involved as it was being addressed. And this is a—a beautiful example, and—and I would have to get in the files to pull out some, you know, the exact facts for you, David, but I guess it was in the—the early 80’s or so that it became perfectly clear to people that we were losing a lot of our birds down here to different causes, but in particular, pesticide use. And, of course, nobody really wanted to admit that in the agriculture community, but, you know, when you look at the food chain and you do some analysis of some of these dead animals and what they’ve ingested, it’s pretty hard to dispute. So, finally there was recognition that there was a problem. In this case, what it took, was trying to bring the agriculture community together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And that was done, and there was agreement on modification of the use and the use of different kinds of insecticides, pesticides, and that sort of thing. And, as a result, with the help of the Peregrine Society, I guess it’s called, the alpomado is back and it’s breeding, and, you know, everybody is very, very pleased.
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The other issue you mentioned was brush clearing and this is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. Again, going back to my early days down here where you could miles, and miles, and miles and—and you saw brush. And then when I came back in 82, I was amazed that there seemed to be very little brush left. But also that our weather pattern seemed to have changed. There seemed to be a hell of a lot more wind and—and, when it blew, the sky would kind of turn gray. And then I saw an aerial satellite infrared photo of this area and it all became very clear. You know, when people say up to 95% of the major brush in this area has been cleared, I think it’s true. When you can see it from 20-40,000 feet up in infrared satellite, you get some idea of just how little is left and how important it is to preserve what we have and then to do what we can to—to plant. There are different groups down here who have an interest in this, Audubon Society has been—been interested, to a certain extent Sierra Club. There’s a group, well the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, of course there’s Texas Parks and Wildlife is interested in it and involved. And there’s something called the Valley Land Fund. And what we did through Valley Proud, one of our projects, of course to establish first All-Valley Arbor Day and then it became All-Valley Arbor Week, and now it’s All-Valley Arbor Month. And, eight years ago, I set a goal of planting two million trees by the year 2000 and people asked #1, you know, “Isn’t that a pretty big job?” And I said, “No, it’s just a bunch of little jobs.” And they’d say, “Well, how did you come up with two million trees?” And I said, “Well, that’s one for every person who lives in this area on both the U.S. and the Mexican side.” So, you know, you know, it’s not a big deal if just everybody would just plant one tree. And, of course, we put the emphasis on the natives and we’ve done a lot of different things to help educate people in that regard. So, we’ve formed partnerships with most of those groups that I’ve mentioned. We’ve linked this to the Project Rio Reforestation, which was set up through the Rio Grande Basin Sustainable Development Group, which I’ve been a part of years ago when it was first founded. And, we have, not only the All-Valley Arbor Month now in February here, but we have Dia del Rio—Rio Reforestation in October and it’s incredible when you see the number of volunteers come out to plant these seedlings. It’s beautiful.
DT: You mentioned that, when you’re picking the number of trees to set as a goal, you counted the number of people, not only on the U.S. side of the border, but also on the Mexican side of the border. I was wondering if, when you were serving either on the City Commission here in Harlingen or on the County Commission of Cameron County, how you dealt with some of these international issues, and maybe you can bring in some of your experiences.
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JM: Well, I—I think, yeah, the first point would be, when I look—because I was born and raised here and then was gone for about 20 years and came back, when I came back, I looked at this area very differently than when I left and I looked at it as an area, I didn’t look at is as just Harlingen, Texas, I didn’t look at it as just Cameron County, I didn’t look at it as just the four counties on the Texas side, but also looked at everything involved on the Mexican side in this area, and—and—and, you know, we’re talking roughly two million people. My perspective changed as the result of the leaving here and coming back and having been involved, you know, in other—other areas, doing different things. As far as involvement, what you’ve got to do is—is, well, again, educate people. It’s really tough on—that—that river, you know, seems to be a major barrier to an awful lot of people. And, I guess, one of the more interesting anecdotal stories when we started our—our All-Valley Arbor Week and then also called it the Arbor los Amistad, the trees of Friendship, because we had a contact in Matamoros, that actually the U.S. Consulate that worked in the Consulate there who was in Rotary and that was at the time when Rotary’s were involved in what they called Preserve Planet Earth programs and decided we would set up a tree planting in Matamoros through their Rotary Club and involve the Mayor of Matamoros.
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And, what we wanted to do was donate eight oak trees to be planted over there. Well, it—it took almost an act of Congress, literally, to get the damn oak trees from this side over there. If—if Kika de la Garza hadn’t been Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and a House Representative, we may not have been able to get those oak trees over there. But, the—the interesting thing was, when people would ask me, “What are you planning to do?” I would say, “We’re going to take eight oak trees and we’re going to plant them in—in Matamoros main plaza”, people would look at me and say, “You mean, oak trees will grow in Mexico?” Now, scratch you head for just a minute and think about that question, I mean, what a big difference that river makes in terms of what will grow to the north of it or to the south of it. But we got over that boundary and we got the oak trees planted and, that hurdle, and we got the oak trees planted and they’re—they’re doing very well. Yeah, the Foreign Service experience is very good because, you know, I’ve dealt with the government, the State of Tamaulipas, Tomas Yarrington, he’s a good friend, the Mayor is—of Matamoros and Reynosa and, of course, speaking Spanish is a big help as well. That was part of the Foreign Service experience.
DT: I guess one of the more recent efforts to try and bring Mexico and the United States closer together is NAFTA. Some people say is going to help raise everybody’s incomes and leave more money for environmental protection and others say all the additional commerce and development is going to hurt the environment. I’m wondering if you could comment on whether NAFTA is a net gain or loss.
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JM: Well, again, from a background point of view when I was with the State Department, I ended up specializing in economic commercial affairs and I worked in the Bureau of International Trade in the State Department in—in Washington, D.C. So I was very, very involved in a broad range of international trade issues. When the idea of NAFTA was first presented in the early 90’s, I was a very strong proponent of NAFTA. I think, when you look at what’s happened since its implementation, there have been—the—the—the pluses far out-weigh the minuses. Why? Because, finally, we got people to focus some attention on the border areas. I’ve been to meeting, after meeting all over this—this state, and for that matter, around the United States, and nobody has any idea where the Lower Rio Grande Valley is, or what it is. And, generally, if they do, it’s a very negative sort of image because of press reports, whether it’s, you know, because of cholera or, you know, shooting of the Border Patrol, or whatever it might be. No, the border between Mexico and U.S. is not the Nueces River. You know, Texas does not stop at Corpus Christi. There’s a big stretch of space in between and there are a lot of people, for instance, who live in this area. There’s probably, in this census April the 1st, I suspect we’re going to have between 850,000, 900,000 people counted on this side and the—and the population growth is—is almost exponential at—at this point in time.
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But back to NAFTA, in that—you know, because people liked the Governor at that point, Ann Richards was very interested in this, she devoted a lot of resources at the State level to doing studies of the border needs and this is really what is was about. There was a border plan, as you may recall, Governor Bush and the President of Mexico instituted about that time, and the idea was to inventory the si—the—the situation along the river and then to come up with cost estimates of how—how to address these things. Well, there were massive studies done and this sort of thing. And, generally, I—I oppose studies. But, I think those studies, generally, were money well spent because, again, it brought the focus here. NAFTA, not only was a trade agreement, but there were a couple of side agreements, as you probably recall, one was on labor and the other was on the environment. The environmental side agreement did a number of different things which were unprecedented and which have had a very positive effect here. One, is it created the NAD Bank, the North American Development Band, and also the BECC, the Board Environment Cooperation Commission as well as the Council on Environmental Cooperation, which is a three-nation deal. NAD Bank and BECC had a very rough start. They weren’t doing a damn thing. And finally, people were getting pretty upset because they had been capitalized and—and they were supposed to be addressing so-called environmental issues which were wastewater treatment, which was enormously important. They changed their policies, they’re doing grants now, previously they were just doing loans. There are projects that are being undertaken, for instance in—in Nuevo Laredo, in—in Reynosa now on sewage treatment, waste water collection projects, a lot of things like that are being done now that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.
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We’re seeing, yes, a real strain on our infrastructure, which can produce water pollution, air pollution, but on the other hand, we’re seeing more money coming in to improve our—our highway systems. I-69, I guess, is probably the best example. Without NAFTA, that never would have been because it, not only focused the spotlight here, but it started the people thinking on a larger than just a local basis and how this area relates to, again, not just to the inter-United States, but also to Canada as well as Mexico. So, we got new international bridges, we—Cameron County just opened its third one in Brownsville, the Los Tomatas(?) Bridge. We have the Gateway Bridge, we have the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios which, again, is a result of—of NAFTA, we never would have gotten federal funding for that if it hadn’t been, so. Yeah, we have more traffic, and yes, there are things that need to be addressed on the air quality side. Yes, we do have to keep watching and working hard on water quality, both point and non-point solu—pollution, but I think it’s—it has had a positive effect.
DT: Could you comment on the, I guess what might have been a predecessor to NAFTA, the Maquilladoras program that I guess started back in the early 60’s. Some folks, again, say that the economic development has been good, it helps raise the floor, but then on the other hand, there’s been these worries about water pollution and air pollution from the Maquilladoras plants. What do you think?
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JM: Well, I think, first I think the Maquillas, by and large, have gotten a bum wrap. I think they’ve been a very convenient scapegoat for a lot of problems that have existed and that have gotten worse over time. That’s not to say that all Maquillas are responsible. There are certain companies that, and I don’t, you know, whether they’re Maquillas or whether they’re operating in the United States or Canada, or wherever they might be, are going to only be interested in one thing, and that’s profit and to hell with the rest of it. On the other hand, there are a number of companies that are in the Maquilla category that are, in my opinion, are very responsible. And I’ll take General Motors and Delphi Corporation as examples, where they’ve gone in and they’ve set up their own waste water treatment plants and they have a discharge which is better then, of course, way much better than what’s coming in from the Rio Grande. On the other hand, you take companies like PEMEX and they’re probably the—the worst offenders of all. You go down to Tampico and see the pollution that’s been caused there in and around those refineries and those oil-pumping stations and, you know, you—you can go here in the border communities. So, yeah, there’s a problem, but it’s not—it’s not totally to blame on the Maquillas. And—but I think, again, the majority of them are trying to do things in a very responsible way. As far as the floor, I don’t think there’s any question the floor has been raised. You know, it’s—it’s got such a long way to go, but folks who work at Maquillas are much better off economically than they are working for national companies.
DT: For the international level of things that have been going on down in South Texas, I understand that you’ve been one of the Commissioner for Cameron County Board and, I was wondering if you could talk about some of the issues you’ve run into there. One thing that comes to my mind is regulations to these colonias that, I guess, are unincorporated neighborhoods that dotted around outside of the city limits. How do you respond to some of those problems, and for those of us from the non-border states, maybe a bit of a definition or description of the colonias?
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JM: I’m glad you asked that question, because I should have incorporated some comments when you—in that general question of NAFTA because, as a result of, again, all these studies and the spotlight being thrown on the border area, a lot of attention was paid to colonias, or what are generally considered sub-standard housing developments, where you would not have the typical water, potable water, available to you, and certainly not have waste water treatment available to you and have problems with roads, and then, of course, the type of housing that—that might be built there. I guess I should start by staying that, we have these colonias primarily because the legislature of the State of Texas has been very irresponsible, in my opinion, over the many years.
What people generally don’t understand is that counties are a creature of the legislature. Counties can only do those things, which the legislature permits counties to do by law. This is very different from municipality, like the City of Harlingen, where we have a city charter, we’re a home-rule city, we can do anything on the Harlingen City Commission we want as long as it’s not prohibited by the charter. So it’s a very, very different sort of governmental activity, counties and—and municipalities. It wasn’t until 1989 when the legislature passed the model subdivision rules. The counties were even able to regulate at all what was happening in colonias. We have—we have, you know, many, many colonias in Cameron County.
0:38:06 – 2084
As a matter of fact, I have one in my precinct called Delmar Heights, it’s built below the flood hazard level and anybody who would have gotten a permit to build there would have to have their floor level 3½ to 5 feet about ground level. There’s no way you can install a septic tank because the ground water table is so high, the soil is like clay, good for making bricks and that’s about all, nothing grows there but salt weed and that sort of thing. Those lots were sold in the early—early 50’s. You know, a big development, major, sub-standard housing throughout, just a very, very sad situation. One of the worst parts is when it rains, water drains in and there’s no way for the water to drain out, so all your septic fields flood and the area is contaminated. You’ve got kids running around there is raw sewage. It’s—they can’t get to school because school busses can’t get in or out. You know, you just go on, and on, and on. We as a commissioner’s court, about five years ago, stopped all development in Delmar Heights, we just said, “Folks, it doesn’t make any more sense.” So the State Health Department no longer issues a septic tank permit. If you don’t have a septic tank permit, you can’t get a building permit. If you don’t get a building permit, you can’t get electricity hooked up. Everything is sto—I think this is probably the only situation like it along the border that I’m aware of where a commissioner’s court has actually bit the bullet and said, “We know this hurts, but to permit anybody else to move in there and build are going to be just subjected to the same kind of threats to public health and safety and it’s got to stop.”
DT: Have you had any private property rights objection saying that they need to be compensated for the value of their lots?
0:39:59 – 2084
JM: Not yet. No, and I think we’re probably over the hump. What I tried to do is work with the then Secretary of HUD, Cisneros, and come up with some funds for relocation for these people. Unfortunately, that never did pan out, but, to me, that would have been the solution, would be a to offer them, say four—well what—if it was un—unimproved land, maybe $1,500 or whatever, and buy them out. If it was improved, then come in with some kind of appraisal, you know, and provide them with an option, in fact, to where they could move because that’s part of the big problem, you know. You might give somebody 10,000 bucks, but what can they get for 10,000 bucks somewhere else. Little by little, we are making major progress in the colonias. Drainage is a big problem throughout, because developers inevitably would go to land that could not be used for anything else, to land that would flood whenever you had any kind of significant rainfall, and they would sell these lots on, what you call, a Contract for Deed, where the guy doesn’t get the title until they make their last payment, and very few of them would ever make the last payment and, once they walked, the land went back to the developer and he sold it to somebody else. And it just perpetuates this cycle. I worked hard to get a land disclosure form, the seller’s disclosure form, for colonias similar to what is required for residential sellers in the market today, for that matter, commercial. And we finally got the legislature to pass that, but big objections from the realtors and developers, they just didn’t want that to happen.
DT: I guess the colonias would be an example of development that sort of went array for irresponsible kinds of construction. I noticed you served on the Board of the Rio Grande Basin Sustainable Development Initiative. I was wondering, we hear a lot about sustainability. What is sustainable development mean to you?
0:41:55 – 2084
JM: Well, basically, what I do is use an analogy. If somebody gave you 100 bucks, David, you have a choice. You can either spend it, or you can put it in the bank and spend only the interest that comes off of it, so that you maintain the principle. And to me, basically, that’s what sustainability is about, to try to leave for tomorrow, for our kids or our grandkids, whatever we have in as good a shape as we got it today. The—the thought that comes to my mind and I use as frequently as I can, is that, “We didn’t inherent this earth from our kids, it’s on loan to us from our children.” And, to me, that’s basically what sustainability is about.
DT: Speaking of good phrases, I noticed that you’ve been very active with non-profit groups and a quote that you often use is, I think the one from Margaret Mead, where she said that, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.” Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. I was wondering if you could elaborate on why that seems so apropos to you.
0:43:08 – 2084
JM: Well, I—I think it’s, unfortunately there’s an enormous amount of apathy in—in the world in our communities today, and—and a lot of it are because people feel helpless. And—and, generally, it comes down to them saying something like, well, “It won’t make any difference whether I do or don’t.” And what I try to do is remind people that the good things that have happened, generally happen because of one, two, three, or four, or five people. I mean, it’s just, you don’t need to have an army in order to accomplish an objective. You just need some people that are—have decided it’s the right thing to do and they’re going to do it.
DT: Although, I guess you don’t need an army, you’ve often been able to raise a pose. I was wondering if you could talk about how you’ve managed to pull off these very large efforts, where you involve thousands of people. Planting the two million trees that you mentioned before, or collecting 13,000 trees in the Doomsday Christmas tree recycling effort, collecting 31,000 tires. These are huge efforts and I’m curious how you managed to coordinate this and pull it off.
0:44:21 – 2084
JM: Well, it takes an awful lot of grit, it takes a lot of determination. And, it’s—it’s not done without a certain amount of personal cost. But, what you do is, as I mentioned before, you get the kids involved and you convince people what you’re doing makes sense for a lot of reasons, including economically. You involve the media, which is terribly, terribly important, and we have had nothing but 100% support from the media, all forms of media in this area. Somehow you’ve got to get to your elected officials, generally that’s your biggest obstacle. But, again, if you can show them that more people are going to pick up that trash than vote in the election, generally, I’ve—when I first started this, I started the Dinosaur of the Year Award and this was to the least supportive elected official that we might be able to find, and I can assure you, nobody wanted to see that Dinosaur coming, I had these little rubber things, you know, but it got their attention. But, you—you decide what you want to accomplish, you—you—you do the organizing, you—you set your goal, you know, so that it’s achievable, which is terribly important. You’ve got to succeed, you’ve got to succeed that first time. If you fail, then you can just forget it, because, generally, people are going to get discouraged and walk away. But, those are essentially the elements that I use and—and people have been—been—been very responsive here.
DT: I guess part of the way you make people aware and got them to be so responsive, is to work through the media. I understand that with some of your efforts have gotten almost three dollars in press coverage for every dollar you’ve invested, and I’m curious how you’ve managed to get their attention.
0:46:12 – 2084
JM: Well, I don’t know that there’s any simple answer to that, other than the media recognizes that these are important activities, that these, again, are the right things for people to be doing and people are responding, people, by participating, showing that they care, that they’re proud. And—and, you’re right, you know, generally the media doesn’t like—or doesn’t focus on these kind of reports, but, you know, it’s—it’s pretty hard to ignore when you see thousands and thousands of people going out to do these things voluntarily on a Saturday morning. And it’s, not to say, rich and poor. And, to me, it’s just so gratifying when we have like our All-Valley Trash Bash, again, and whole families come out. You can have the Garcia family and you’ll have 15 people and they’ll have them from two years old to 80 years old and they go out as a—as a little team and they take their bags and do their cleanup and—and they feel good about what they’re doing. And the—the press can’t ignore it. And—and then, once you get it started, you know, the sponsorships for Valley Proud are $2,500 in cash or $5,000 or more in—in kind. And, I think if you look at our sponsors now, we probably have 15 media of one kind or another involved as sponsors. And this is your radio stations, AM, FM, your TV stations, and it’s all your—your printed media. They’re all involved. And this is how we do it.
DT: It seems like you’ve managed to make conservation sort of a mainstream effort. It seems real heartening to hear that because I’ve found that a lot of people I talk to often feel like the odd man out, the general feeling seems to be that environmentalism is not a very acceptable thing. I was curious how you’ve managed to make it easier for other people to swallow.
0:48:20 – 2084
JM: Well, I—I guess I try, education is—is fundamental to all of this and education takes a lot of different forms, whether, it depends on your audience, and it depends on where the hot buttons are, and that sort of thing. But, you—you just have to develop a message, it’s like running a political campaign, and you have to repeat it, and repeat it, and then you have to see some results and repeat it. And, pretty soon, it—it takes on its own, its own life. I can tell you, you know, you talk about the cultural, the—the Hispanic component of the population, one of my biggest problems has been the agricultural community. You know, you mentioned the pesticides before, but, and you mentioned property rights, you know, “By God, this is my land, and I can do whatever, if I want to dump old tires here, or drain my oil into that drainage ditch, I can do it.” You know, that’s the tough one to overcome. I’ll never forget the first time…
0:49:25 – 2084
JM: As I was mentioning, one of the toughest constituencies around here to deal with the agricultural community. And—and, when you asked your question, it reminded of the time I was first running for County Commissioner and I stopped at a coffee shop in Los Fresnos which is between here and the—the Laguna Madre. And there was a table, a round table and about six or eight guys sitting at it drinking their morning coffee. So when I finished my breakfast and before I left, I walked over the introduced myself and I said, “I’m James Matz, I’m running for County Commissioner.” And I shook two or three hands and got to this one guy and he sat there with his arms folded and I looked at him and I stuck my hand out and he said, “I’m not going to shake hands with you, you’re an environmentalist.” And, you know, I was dumbstruck and—and said, you know, “I’m sorry sir, I’m not sure exactly what you mean, I’d be very pleased to sit down with you sometime to talk about it.” He didn’t accept the offer, but, you know, there—there are some people that are not going to be receptive, but by and large, people are.
DT: Let’s talk a little bit about some specific issues that have been raised in this part of Texas. One I know of is a big issue, maybe one that affects some of these farmers, is water. I believe you served as a member of the Rio Grande Water Board and I was curious if you could talk about how the valley is trying to respond to the shortages of water that it has now and I’m sure will continue.
0:50:57 – 2084
JM: About three years ago, the legislature passed something call Senate Bill One, and in doing so, they divided the state up into 16 regions for purposes of developing a 50-year water plans, drought management plan is actually what they called it. Our region is Region M, it stretches from the Gulf of Mexico, past Del Rio, it’s the lower Rio Grande Valley, generally speaking. There are probably 18 of us who are appointed according to the legislation by categories. I’m there in the governmental category, we have municipalities, we’ve got irrigation districts, etceteras, etceteras. We have been meeting for a little over a year, well on our way to completing the plan, primarily because, we organized about four years ago on a three-county basis, the lower Rio Grande Water Policy Planning committee and we’d already done a tremendous amount of work on the water issue before the Senate Bill One thing kicked in. What, and I’ve learned a—a tremendous amount. What—what you have to understand, talking about water in this area, is that agriculture uses almost 15%, act—I mean 85%. The municipalities only use about 15% of the total water supply. So you can talk about water conservation until you’re blue in the face when it comes to cities and it’s not really going to make much difference in the bottom line. Where you have to make changes is in agriculture. And again, you’re dealing with a particular mentality there, you know, “This water is owed me, you know, it’s mine and I can do with it what I want.” Fortunately, there’s one irrigation district down here that has instituted volumetric metering so farmers are charged on the actual usage and not just by opening a value somewhere and flooding a field. So they’ve got an incentive there to not use any more than they actually need to. They’re changing the conveyance systems. They’re trying to rework existing irrigation canals, putting in concrete pipe so we don’t have the seepage and evaporation.
0:53:09 – 2084
Then in the fields, rather than run water through long ditches, using poly pipe to transport, doing things here, I guess, have been done in California for—for decades where the water pinch has even been greater. Just part of what we’ve done, we’ve identified about a hundred million dollars worth of improvements that are needed to the irrigation districts and we’re working now at the state and federal level and did get a bill passed, as a matter of fact last year, which is going to make it possible to start addressing some of these problems. I think we’ve raised water to a very high level of—of interest around here. You see more people planting native plants, for instance, as a result of that. You see a little more xeriscaping going on with the landscaping. There have been some efforts made through the schools in the curriculum, which have been, I think, very useful and productive. We’re—we’re making progress. The—the fact of the mater is, however, you’ve got a rapidly expanding population. The only thing, I guess, that mitigates, is a lot of the agriculture area is turning into developed area which means you don’t need as much water for a family as you do for a field of sugar cane and that sugar cane is probably your most extreme crop from a water need point of view. In the paper today, there’s an—an article that you might want to look at, I brought a copy, where we’ve now got some problems with—with Mexico in the State of Chihuahua about water being dammed up there and not diverted for U.S. use as required by the Treaty of 1944. And, I’m afraid this is an enormously serious situation which is going to become one of the most serious bilateral and bi-national issues between our two countries, you know, other than immigration and drugs, this is floating right to the top, believe me. For seven years, Mexico has not diverted the water that is required by treated to divert to the United States, which means, not only does it hurt us here, because that water goes down the Rio Grande, is captured in Lake Amistad and then in Falcon, and then released here, but, the people on the Mexican side in the State of Tamaulipas are also hurting. The farmers there were denied any irrigation water at all last year around late March or early April, so they did—did not have a crop and they’re is as bad of shape this year as they were, so, it’s certainly interesting to see how this plays out. But, water is, to me, water quantity and water quality are the, by far, the most important issues that we have in this area.
DT: One water quantity issue that I’ve heard about, just recently, was that there was a proposal to put in a new dam on the main stem of the Rio Grande, I think below Brownsville, is that right?
0:56:06 – 2084
JM: That’s correct.
DT: What’s the issue there? What do you think of it?
0:56:09 – 2084
JM: Well, this is a proposal and I think they’re talking about a 35 million dollar project or something like that, undertaken by the Brownsville Public Utility Board, PUB. As a matter of fact, I’ve had lunch with the President of the—of the PUB and the Chairman of the Board yesterday and we talked about this. I have not been a supporter of that project, primarily because it has been opposed by the Shrimpers Association and by Audubon. Audubon, because they—they maintain sable palm sanctuary just south of Brownsville and, supposedly, that will be impacted. The Shrimpers Association and the fisherman because it could negatively impact the shrimp nursery beds by the Gulf of Mexico. S—s—according to these two guys yesterday, the primary objection of the release of water which would provide for a continuous flow of fresh water as it is now into the Gulf of Mexico, that issue has been addressed and evidently, in their opinion, it should not be a problem and they said they would be sending more—more information and I look forward to receiving that. The idea there, is that they would capture water that would otherwise, in their opinion, “would be wasted”. Well, I think no such animal. Anyway, again, this is one of those education processes and where I think we’ve made progress in moving that project in a more positive direction, but where it’s going to end up, I really don’t know.
DT: You also mentioned that water quality is an issue that concerns you. We’ve heard a number of time from other people about how the encephalitic babies and people have made suppositions as to why, perhaps it’s Maquilladoras water discharges, but their position is that it is some sort of water quality problem. I’m curious what you think of that.
0:58:11 – 2084
JM: I really don’t know. I’ve heard, you know, a lot of speculation, but I—I have not seen any hard evidence of—of what exactly is the case of this. It’s—it was a—a—a very hot issue, I think, about three years ago. I haven’t heard diddly-squat about it in the last couple of years or more. Whether it was kind of a freak occurrence, or—or, you know, they were talking about genetics, they were talking about folic acid, they were, you know, there were all kinds of air quality, air emissions, water, I just don’t know, but certainly, yes, it’s something to be concerned about. But, I don’t know that the—that we have, you know, pinpointed the—the source at this point.
DT: Speaking of babies, I understand that South Texas’ population is booming and you had mentioned that your county has grown by something like 150% in the last 20 years. I was curious what can a county or citizens do to respond to this population problem?
0:59:24 – 2084
JM: Well, of course, the—there are two elements. One is planning, and the other’s money. It’s just—and, it just, first its recognition of what’s going on and what the implications of this growth are. One of the things I would certainly like to see here, which is not happening, is land use planning. Unfortunately, an awful lot of prime agricultural land is now going into development. You know, we see a lot of clearing, you know, still, of the brush that remains. But, I’m afraid the private property right attitude is prevalent in this case and to—to try to institute some kind of countywide land use plan, at this point, would be very difficult, you know. The concept’s out there, it’s been discussed, but I don’t know that were going to see much progress on that. And, unfortunately, like many instances, you almost have to have a crisis before people wake up, scratch their head, and say, “Gosh, we should have been doing something about that.” And maybe, we’re—we’re headed, unfortunately, in that direction. I think of Los Angeles and what I tell people is, “We’ve got a mini Los Angeles on our hand in the Rio Grande valley.” You know, we’ve got essentially city limit to city limit right now. The undeveloped parts of counties are being developed very rapidly, subdivisions going in one after another, you know, this is just going to be one big monster down here and we really ought to have learned from what’s happened in some other places.
DT: I guess some of the development pressure has even reaching to the coast. I noticed that you’ve been a member of the GLO’s, General Land Office’s, Shoreline Access Guidebook Committee and I was curious what you see happening there, you know, how do you balance peoples interest in having a nice second home and the public’s interest in having access to the beach.
1:01:01 – 2084
JM: Well, I think we’ve come along way here in Texas on that. If you go to, well, beaches are—are public, period. I mean, it’s, you—you can’t fence off a beach. If you go to a town in South Padre Island, you’ll see these little pocket park type deals where people can pull in there and there’s a walk—crossover walkway from there—the lot to the beach. The county has two, or three major parks on South Padre Island. We have Isla Blanca Park, Andy Bowie Park, Atwood Park. We try to control access in one of those parks, solely because we want it to be a family park where people can go with their kids, take them to the beach and not have to worry about some yo-yo driving too fast and hitting one of them, which is, you know, a real, real possibility. As far as this particular group is concerned, the interest was in primarily inventorying what does exist and making more information available to the public as to what’s available on South Padre Island, where you can go, what you can do, where the boat ramps are, where these pocket parks are, where the county parks are, what facilities are available to them, showers, restrooms, or if there are no showers and restrooms so that people can enjoy the beaches more fully.
End of Reel 84.
0:01:28 – 85
DT: We’ve talked repeatedly about water and one of the biggest pieces of water out here is Laguna Madre. I read once that you wrote that you had witnessed the decline of Chesapeake Bay, San Diego Bay, Great Lakes, the appearance of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and with all this, the Laguna Madre becomes ever more precious. I was curious if you could talk about what makes it so special and what kind of threats you see to its health.
0:02:02 – 2085
JM: Well, the one you didn’t mention was Galveston Bay. And, of course, these are all perfect examples of what we were talking about before where all too often, unfortunately, people really don’t take the kind of positive interest in an issue until you reach a crisis or you even pass the crisis point. All of those are perfect examples of—of things that don’t have to happen. Again, I guess I’m fortunate having lived and worked in a lot of different places and been in the Washington, D.C. Chesapeake Bay, California San Diego Bay, and realizing that, we don’t have to lose something before we understand that it has value. And, of course, the Laguna Madre is an enormously valuable asset for us here in this. Economically it supports, according to one guesstimate, maybe a half a billion dollars worth of activity every year, whether it’s the shrimping, the fishing, the recreational use, everything else associated with that body of water. Then there’s the, and I could almost call the spiritual aspect, I mean, we—we’re talking very early on about my—my experience as a kid and being out there with the sunrise and the red fish feeding and that sort of thing, but, you get out there in that very shallow water and—and maybe the only one within sight and it’s just so—so magnificently beautiful. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to get out there. If you haven’t, you ought to get Walt Kittelberger to take you out there because he can point out, of course, a lot of very important aspects. Why am I concerned? Because it doesn’t have to happen here. What does that mean? First, my concern about the Arroyo Colorado, that’s a fresh water inflow source, major fresh water inflow source for the Laguna Madre. It stretches from Mission on the west end of the valley over to Laguna Madre. It is, in fact, the major drainpipe for the Rio Grande Valley. All the wastewater treatment plants dump their effluent into the Arroyo Colorado in this area, except for Brownsville, but there is 20, 25 or so wastewater treatment plants. And, of course, you can have very good effluent, and sometimes you can have malfunctions, and you get some—some real negative impact. Essentially, this whole area drains into the Arroyo Colorado, only a very small portion of the area drains into the Rio Grande, so it’s taking all your runoff from your agricultural properties, all the insecticides, all the pesticides, and anything and everything else. It, as well, is—is impacted by non-point pollution in the forms of runoff from parking lots and—and, you know, anywhere and everywhere else there is asphalt or concrete or that sort of thing. It’s negatively impacted by the illegal dumping that takes place. People throw their garbage and trash and whatever it is into the drainage ditch which, once it rains, where does it end up? Right in the Arroyo Colorado. Where does that end up? In the Laguna Madre. We had some shrimp farms on the Arroyo, big time problems with those, most of those corrected. So, I’m very concerned about the Arroyo Colorado and the potential negative impact it can have on the Laguna Madre. Then, when you look around the Laguna Madre, you see, also, that there’s development, whether it’s Laguna Vista, Laguna Heights, Port Isabelle, South Padre Island, and then, again, you have the runoff problems. Hopefully, there’s—these—these will be addressed better in the future with cer—certain kinds of pretreatment of runoff. I know a lot of people aren’t going to like it, but I think it’s something that’s—that’s overdue and something that we—we need. I try to convince the people that live in Laguna Heights, which is an unincorporated area between Laguna Vista and Port Isabelle, and you probably drove through it when—when you went to see Diane. But, most of the houses don’t have garbage collection. That drains directly into the Laguna Madre. Many of those people’s jobs are dependant on the—the health of the Laguna Madre, whether they’re in the shrimping business or whether they’re fisherman, or whatever they might be doing associated with those industries. And little by little they’re getting the message. But, these are the kinds of things that I’m concerned about.
DT: We’re going to switch direction a little bit and talk about another thing that’s sort of important from an environmental standpoint. It also helps under gird the economies down here, and that’s energy supply. I know that you’ve been involved in a number of different capacities in trying to work on rate control for some of these utilities, particularly South Texas Nuclear Project. I was curious to see if you would talk a little bit about that.
0:07:08 – 2085
JM: Sure. Well, the cost of electricity is a major cost for everybody, whether it’s for your home or for your business, it really doesn’t make much difference. And—and, having reliable, affordable electricity at your disposal is very important. It’s particularly important to us down here now as this area grows and the demand for electricity continues to increase. The flip side of that is you want that—that electricity to be as clean as it can possibly be. For years, there was a natural gas generating plant down here, I think, ultimately, CP&L [Central Power and Light] closed it when they opened up the South Texas Nuclear Project, but natural gas, of course, is probably the cleanest fuel source that you can have for power generation apart from nuclear, but depending on how you want to address all of the aspects of nuclear power including the disposal of the fuel—fuel source. The South Texas Nuclear Project was a real wake up call for people in this area because CP&L was a 25% owner and because of the mismanagement, the imprudent of management, that project, rates were slated to increase astronomically, something like 70%, or 80%, or even more. And when you have such a low per capita income as we have down here, and everybody depending on electricity, it would have been a heck of a hit for a lot of low-income families and, of course, it would be a negative impact on the economy generally, too. And I became very involved in that, not as an opponent of nuclear power per se, but of the way that project was put together and
0:08:55 – 85
managed that it was—HL&P [Houston Power & Light] was one of four owners, they were the majority partner, they were the managing partner, they let the contracts, they ran the monthly meetings, they did the day to day oversight. They issued a contract—went into a contract with Brown and Root as project manager, engineer, constructor, Brown and Root had never done that before. That—that was mistake number 1. Number 2, it was a cost-plus contract which is, of course, what was the dream of any engineering and construction company because it means the more you spend, the more you make. You actually had—had no incentive, whatsoever to hold—hold costs. I know, when I worked with Flour we loved cost-plus projects. We needn’t go into that anymore, but that’s the way that was set up and—because the blind were leading the blind, literally, because HL&P had no experience with a major project like that either. I guess, what started out as a 750 million dollar project ended up at five or six billion dollars and, you know, it was a lot—a lot of money that just didn’t have to be. And that’s why I became very involved in utility regulation and rate cases. It took us eight years to settle that and two or three other cases that all got wrapped in together. We saw a significant reduction in the increase in rates because of the amount of investment. The PUC [Public Utility Commission] did not allow the partners to include in the rate base, even though there’s still quite a lot there, and now it’s called stranded cost, but, it—I—I think we made a lot of good points. One of the things I’m very pleased about as a result of that whole process was, if you look at CP&L’s bill today, or Central Power and Light, our local provider, you will actually see what the kilowatt hour is that you’re paying. And it took that being made part of the settlement document with CP&L for us to get that, at that point they really didn’t want to have people know what they were paying per kilowatt hour and I said, “Folks, people are going to know.”
0:11:04 – 2085
I mean, you don’t drive up to a gasoline station and put the nozzle in your tank, and pull the trigger and not know what it’s costing per gallon, and people need to know that with energy. And, I think that too was a good educational tool, people could see what they were paying and, you know, how, if they saved and conserved a little here or there, it was to their benefit. To their—to their benef—merit, CP&L, I think, has gone a long way now in looking at green sources of energy. They’ve had some focus groups discussed, they’ve—they’re involved in some pilot type projects and there will be more of that kind of power available. Of course, it’s going to cost a little more initially because that’s the name of the game. In the meantime down here with deregulation, what we’ve found is Duke Power has moved into this area, they’re constructing a major plant right now, and there’s a—a smaller company that is trying to get into the electricity game as well, we’ll just have to see how that works out.
DT: Speaking of deregulation, how do you think that the stranded cost issue is going to play out with the South Texas Nuclear Project?
0:12:09 – 2085
JM: Well, I think that determination has already been made. I think, unfortunately, you know, rate payers are still going to have to pay for what, in my opinion, is—is more than they should have had to pay for that nuclear project. But, that’s water under the bridge. We’ve got a process for utility regulation in Texas, which frankly, still disturbs me. It’s—I would have liked to have seen out PUC [Public Utility Commission] Commissioners elected rather than appointment, I think there’s more accountability there. And I, you know, I remember going up there for hearings and there might be two or three of us who were speaking for consumers and you’d have a hundred lawyers in there representing the utilities, all of them making, probably 100, 150, $200 an hour. And, either we would doing it for nothing, or we were doing it for next to nothing. But that’s reality also of the process.
DT: Speaking of that, do you think there is a better way of structuring a lot of this governmental regulation where public interest does get more of a voice and special interests don’t get quite as much say so.
0:13:23 – 2085
JM: Well, there has to be. But, just exactly how that would, you know, what form that would take, I can’t point you to a specific example and say, “Hey, we ought to be doing it like they do in Oregon, or we ought to be doing like they do in California, or whatever.” But I’m—I’m sure that there are other models out there that do have greater consumer and citizen participation.
DT: Again, looking into a crystal ball, what sort of conservation issues do you think we’re going to face down the pike? Are there some that you think are going to be more important or less important in the future?
0:13:59 – 2085
JM: Well, I think land use, ultimately will rise to the top of—of our—our priority list. I think at some point people are going to realize that we’re just simply not, we’re not using our land in the—in the best way right now. We’re not providing for the kind of balance that we should. That—that will be important. I think water quantity and water quality will always be out there as important issues, it’s just—it’s just so fundamental. At some point, air quality may, depending on the future development down here. We’ve been fortunate so far that that is not a serious problem that we’re aware of, and there’s been a fair amount of monitoring that’s taken place. But those would be the ones I would think be most important.
DT: Again, as we’re looking towards the future, what word would you give the younger generation coming along to get them interested and involved in the sort of work that you’ve been doing on conservation?
0:15:05 – 2085
JM: Well, that they can make a difference. I—I keep going back to that Margaret Mead quote and to something else somebody used at a graduation ceremony talking to a bunch of kids saying that, you know, “Anybody can make a buck, but not everybody can make a difference.” And try to help people understand that they have a stewardship responsibility and that we’re living off the interest and not off the capital.
DT: We often ask people if they can describe a favorite place they enjoy that’s outdoors and why it means something to them.
0:15:52 – 2085
JM: Well, I guess I would answer it with—mention a couple three. One would be, of course, the beach at South Padre Island is—if—I mean. I remember as a kid, before there was a causeway and you had to go across with a boat and—and there were no roads and there was a half-tract that might be able to get you across the dunes to the jetties and if there were ten people there, the—the island was crowded, you know, that was kind of the way it was in those days. But getting up on that beach and—and, where you’re essentially, you know, all alone, is—is pretty special. Although, Laguna Madre is, you know, is—is a jewel and you guys just simply have got to get out there and see this, you know, what it’s like, especially like at sunrise or sunset, something like that. Laguna Atascosa, our National Wildlife Refuge, is another very special place. And then, I would mention, my wife and I just bought some land over on the Arroyo north of Rio Hondo, 20 acres, half of it is in cultivation, the other half is in native brush. We have about 124 different species in that little old plot of land. It’s on the high bank of the Arroyo. We’re going to put a little house over there. Right now, we just have some trails cut through there and—and I really enjoy going over and just walking those trails and—and along the Arroyo, that’s pretty special to me. We’re going to be reforesting the front 10 acres, we’re going to be putting it back into native brush and that’s going to be our next kind of serious project.
DT: Good luck with that. Thanks very much for spending time with us. I appreciate it.
0:17:25 – 2085
JM: You’re welcome, David. Sure.
End of reel 2085.
End of interview with James Matz.