INTERVIEWEE: Jim Earhart (JE)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: February 23, 2006
LOCATION: Laredo, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2366, 2367, 2368
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and we’re in Laredo, Texas. It is February 23rd, 2006 and we have a nice opportunity to visit with Professor Jim Earhart, who is a retired professor of biology from Laredo Community College and was the Executive Director for a number of years at the Rio Grande International Study Center. And in both capacities been interested in studying and advocating for protection of the natural environment in this southwestern part of Texas and I wanted to take this chance to thank you for spending time with us.
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JE: Well, thank you, David, for the opportunity.
DT: I thought we might start with a question about your childhood. I understood that you grew up in the piney woods of northeast Texas and I was curious if that might have introduced you to the outdoors and to a love and study of it?
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JE: Very much so, David. And—but back then, we didn’t think about it in the term of—terms of being environmentalists or activists. I just went out hunting and fishing with my dad in those rolling sandy hills of east Texas in the piney and hardwood complex and we enjoyed it tremendously. And I learned to love nature that way without even thinking of being an environmentalist.
DT: Can you tell us about any of those first trips, hunting or fishing or otherwise being in the outdoors?
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JE: Yeah, we used to go out and squirrel hunt. We like to eat—when we killed something, we ate it. We didn’t just go kill it for the fun, we ate the squirrels. And I remember being out with my dad; we would come up to some friends’ house in the woods. And they’d invite us in, we’d sit around the fireplace—this would be wintertime or fall of the year, when it was cool—we’d sit around the—the—the fireplace and they would have some baked potatoes and—and parched peanuts and so on and we’d sit there and eat and talk. And then get back out and—and—in the woods and look for the
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squirrels again. And of course, we went duck hunting, we went fishing, all those kind of things, tremendously enjoyable. My dad was—you know, y—you couldn’t say he was an environmentalist in the modern sense of the word, but he greatly appreciated the out of doors. He enjoyed it and I think if we had a whole world with his attitude right now, we’d have a lot better environment.
DT: What was his attitude, you think, about nature and wildlife?
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JE: He—I think he had a—a deep sense of love for it. Those critters, he—sort of like the Native Americans. When he—there’s a reverence, even when you go kill an animal, a deer or whatever, that you’re going to be using for your livelihood, you kill it in reverence and with thanks. And I think my dad had that kind of attitude.
DT: You were telling me before about your dad and other family and friends that went squirrel hunting and that you always ate what you shot. I’m curious if this attitude your father and your family had about wildlife would’ve seen something odd about trophy hunting, which seems like the more traditional kind of hunting, especially the high dollar kind of hunting that goes on now.
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JE: Right. That’s something that we didn’t do. There was no trophy hunting. I guess for one thing, you know, I just—I never thought about it at the time, but probably if my dad had thought about it, he would probably have figured it was kind of expensive to get the heads mounted. That’s—you know, that—that’s an interesting question. I had not thought about that before, but we just never considered trophy hunting. It was hunting for animals, fish and so on that could be used for food, plus the fact it was enjoyable just to go and be outdoors and—and do that kind of thing. We used to have big family
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picnics, for example, down on the Sandy Creek, which was one of the creeks that passes nearby Hawkins and—and—and is a tributary of the Sabine River. And so we’d gather together sometimes on holidays and Sundays and so on and somebody would’ve been down there maybe the night before with trotlines, catching fish. Big black wash pot out there with a fire cooking fish in a—in a deep—deep fat and then having fish and hush puppies and cole slaw, you know, and iced tea or coffee, you know, those kind of things. And then sitting around the—the—in the out of doors and talking. Those kinds of things made tremendous impression upon me as a kid.
DT: And as you grew up and went to high school, were there any teachers that might’ve first exposed you to a maybe a more technical, kind of scientific attitude about the outdoors and wildlife?
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JE: Not so much again in the sense that we think about it today, but I remember, probably my favorite of all teachers, T.L. Green, taught social studies, taught me history and so—about the eighth grade. He was also my scoutmaster. I think being in scouting was probably one of the things that really gave me a—also a deep appreciation for nature and for wildlife. The scouting message, I mean, be prepared and also have respect for your surroundings. Have respect for nature and we used to spend times out camping, sometimes just a—a—you know, maybe a Friday evening meeting around the campfire. But other times, we would be out, you know, for extended trips. So those kind of things.
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I’d say the scouting program, which was, as I say, the scoutmaster was my teacher. But again, as far as a structured, ecological training in high school, not yet. But remember, I graduated high school in 1954 and at that time, we sort of still felt like there was a lot of space out there. And that space has greatly diminished, those woods have greatly diminished. When I go back to East Texas now and I drive from Hawkins to Tyler, about 21 miles, the place that I first remember as a country dirt road connecting Hawkins with Tyler, of course, was paved a long time ago and now it is becoming developed. The
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piney woods and the hardwoods are being ripped apart and removed. And I—I have to admit that when I drive through there now, it’s hard not to sort of feel some emotion about the loss of habitat and so on that I see taking place since the days of my youth, you know.
DT: You mentioned that you were in the Boy Scouts and I was curious if you could tell us about any of these particular campouts or overnight trips that you took, some that might that be more memorable?
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JE: Yeah, we used to go—we used to go to a—a Camp Tonkawa, which was down close to Henderson or Mt. Enterprise, Texas, in that area, kind of deep East Texas. And we’d spend a week at Camp Tonkawa. And I remember those kind—yeah, those were great times. Bug juice—I’m thinking about bug juice right now. Bug juice was the
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Kool-Aid that was in a big—a big container, a big barrel down by the mess hall. And of course, at lunchtime, we’d all have to—we’d have the detail to go down and pick up the food and bring it back to the campsite and then we’d go down with containers and bring back the—the Kool-Aid. And when you would open up the—or—or when you would reach down to get the Kool-Aid out of the barrel, I mean you got all these yellow jackets and wasps and stuff flying around in there. It’s why we called it bug juice. And of course, in deep East Texas with the piney woods and again in the hardwoods and the
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sandy land and all that stuff, being out hiking in the fields and so on with the scouts, those were tremendous times. And, you know, I remember good old buddies that were there at the time and—and—and we greatly—greatly enjoyed that. Donald Williams, he was my—probably my best buddy long about that time and then there were a couple of twins, Dale and Gale McQuaid. Gale and I particularly used to spend the night out on—again, on Sandy Creek in Hawkins. We’d just go out, the two of us, and sit there by the campfire and look at the stars and just kind of look at the world out in front of us.
DT: Was this little Sandy Creek the same stream that was proposed to be submerged behind a dam?
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JE: Not—not yet. At least, not to my knowledge. Not unless it’s happened in the last few months, but not—oh, no, no, no. Not that Sandy Creek. That Sandy Creek is—is still there. Now there are of course, Sandy Creek’s in other places. That may be under Toledo Bend Reservoir, the Sandy Creek you’re talking about. Very possibly. But I’m not particularly—I mean, I’m not knowledgeable of that particular situation. But the Sandy Creek I’m talking about still exists.
DT: Sure. I think the same one that I’m talking about, but there was one that, if I remember this correctly, there was a Sandy Creek Hunting and Fishing Club that donated an easement on their property along that creek so it couldn’t be dammed.
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JE: Okay, now that…
DT: Is that the same stream?
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JE: Okay. I think so, yes, because the San—okay, the—the—that Hunting and Fishing Club—one of my uncles used to be a guide. Yes, there was an Earhart Grocery Store very close to the turnoff to go to the—what they called a club lake. We always just called it the club lake. And I remember he used to—my uncle used to be a guide. And in fact, up Sandy Creek, there is a lake. Lake Hawkins is up—maybe that’s what—yeah. There—up Sandy Creek, further up Sandy Creek, upstream there is Lake Hawkins. But there’s still a good stretch of Sandy Creek from the dam all the way down to the Sabine
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River and—and in the area of the club lake. Yeah. I’d kind of—those kind—those things are back there in the recesses of my mind, but that’s true. In fact, my dad—my dad was the first lake keeper and game warden—deputy game warden on Lake Hawkins, which—which a—yes, is a dammed up portion of Sandy Creek, that’s true. And that was—that was built probably back in the 70’s. It was after I had left home, but I remember I’d go back and visit him. I remember going down to the—to the lake, the boathouse close by where my mother and dad lived. And of course, he—he had the county boat down there and he would go down and—and feed the fish by the boathouse.
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And I remember going down and I—at this time, I really had never observed that particular phenomenon, but I walked to the boathouse and as I got close to the water, suddenly (sound), the fish started coming toward me, just like a bunch of chickens wa—waiting to be fed. And that’s what had happened. He had been feeding those fish and I could walk up and down the bank and the fish would follow me in the water. They would swim along with me in the water, which I thought was a pretty interesting
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phenomenon back then and—and, you know, I know it’s conditioned reflex, but I had not thought about it at that time. I was probably in my 20’s or 30’s—maybe 30 at that time.
DT: Let’s see. After you grew up in Hawkins, you went to college at Texas Tech, is that correct?
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JE: Well, at first I went to Tyler Junior College. Oh, I just drove across there—I drove the bus. And I—I got a job driving the bus back and forth and I would pick up students along the route who were going into the college. That helped pay my college tuition. In fact, it helped buy my first old automobile, which was a—a ‘49 Ford with every color from the outside color down to the rust. And—but yeah, I—so I went to Tyler Junior College and—and there I got an Associates Degree and, you know, didn’t know too much what I wanted to do at that time. I knew I liked the biology course that I
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took, but I wasn’t really for sure yet what I was going to do. I went from there then to North Texas State University. And—well, North Texas State College, I think, at the time. I think it—they had already dropped the designation of teachers, but North Texas State College. And still I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I had my friend, Donald Williams, who was studying industrial arts, so I signed up for industrial arts for a while and was not very enthusiastic about that. And so I ended up getting a—a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. And with that, I went to work in Dallas
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for B.F. Goodrich and worked there for a few months and they transferred me out to—out towards Borger—Borger, Texas. Lived there for a while and—and worked for the company. Then I got transferred back to Grand Prairie, which is between Dallas and Fort Worth. Working for B.F. Goodrich, it was that point that I met my wife and married her. And then I, through another friend from Hawkins, I found an opportunity to teach at the
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Duncanville High School. Now that was a real switch because all of my days in high school and my days in college, if somebody would’ve told me, hey, one of these days, you’re going to teach school, I would’ve laughed at them. I would’ve really laughed if they said someday you’ll have a PhD because I thought no way. But somehow, after I finished the—my active duty in military service, I thought well, you know, teaching sounds pretty good. And so I did get the opportunity to teach on an emergency certificate because I didn’t have teacher training and so I taught eight years at—at Duncanville.
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And then I got interested in—well, I had always had some interest in biology and out of doors and they had me teaching all sorts of classes for which I was really not qualified. And so I said hey, if—if you have me do that, let me do a—a biology—take a biology class because I knew that National Science Foundation was giving grants for folks who needed further science training. And so the principal gave me an assignment in biology and I applied and, sure enough, got a National Science Foundation grant to go to Texas Tech in Lubbock. And I went out there the first year and, boy, I—I got there and I
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realized hey, man, you’re behind the eight ball because there were a lot of those folks who already had degrees and some of them certainly had more science than I did. I had eight hours of—of biology, basically, and—and maybe a phys—a physics class. And I got out though and I struggled and—and made good enough grades that they gave me a sequential program. So I got to go back then for three more years and by that time, I was able to finish a Master’s degree and I got the Master’s degree in zoology with a minor in
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botany. So that really got me moving into the field of biology. Then during that—that last semester, the semester I was about to finish up, I saw an advertisement on the—well, you know, in fact, Chester Rowell, who was one of my instructors there, told me. He said hey, you know, you interested in teaching? He said I saw a—an advertisement over on the bulletin board about Laredo Junior College at that time, before the name changed. And he said you know, that’s a neat place down there. Chester Rowell was a plant—well, he—actually a taxonomist. He was really into naming plants. And he said I used
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to—and he said I’d go down to Laredo every so often to identify plants when the flowers are blooming and so on and he said you ought to try that. And I sent a—I worked up a—an application and handed it to my wife because I was busy with my work there and asked her if she’d send it toward the early part of the week. And so I assumed it was sent. Well, Saturday, I get a call from Doctor Laird at Laredo Junior College saying hey, you know, we’d like for you to come down and interview. And so I talked to my wife and she said you know, I just sent the letter Friday. I forgot, she said. So I don’t know
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how that happened I can’t imagine the mail service getting a letter from Friday to Saturday, but my wife’s pretty o—objective and I—I think she was right. I don’t know how that happened. But at any rate, I got the call Saturday—I got the call Saturday from Doctor Laird, then we came down to Laredo for an interview and got hired on to teach at Laredo Community College and I ha—I still did not quite have the Master’s. The Master’s degreed was conferred, I think, during the summer before I started teaching in
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the fall. And so then I started my tenure at—at Laredo Junior College and then finally finished it six years ago, I guess, in ’80—I mean, ’99 or something like that. About six years ago, I—I did my last year. 30—I believe, 33rd year. I’ve got—had over 40 years—about 40, 41 years in—in teaching altogether.
DT: Maybe you could tell us what it was that you were teaching while you were at Laredo, now Community College?
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JE: Yeah, I started out teaching general—the general biology courses. And during the time there, I—I—during the time I was at Laredo Community College, I taught not only general biology, but I taught physiology, I taught human anatomy and physiology. That was a course I ended up teaching most of the time, human—human anatomy and physiology. But I also taught the—the comparative anatomy course, which used to be required for medical schools. It’s no longer and so that—that’s been dropped from the curriculum, but I used to teach that class. And then in the last few years of my tenure, we
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developed and started teaching a river curriculum course and that was focused on the Rio Grande. And in this particular course, we really stressed ecology, ecology of the river and so on. And this is something that I had not done previously. In fact, I—with my training in zoology, botany, lot of—there was some fieldwork back then. And then my PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry, most of the stuff was inside, kind of
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technical, inside the lab. And I had never really been trained in ecology and so when I was teaching the general biology classes, the ecology always was stuffed at the end. We started usually with chemistry and the ecology was at the end. And so I followed suit and really never got to the ecology and I think most of my colleagues were doing the same thing. Well, to me, that’s totally backwards. We had it wrong. We had it wrong and—and one of the regrets of my career is that I didn’t teach biology correctly. I did not have the ecology and the environmental biology toward the beginning of the semester, looking
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at the whole picture and then honing down into the details. You know, I—I’m thinking—I’ve been thinking one of these days of apologizing to my former student, Congressman Henry Cuellar, hey, you know, I’m sorry, Henry, I didn’t quite teach that class right back there. If I’d a taught—if I’d a taught the ecology and the environmental biology first, I’d have probably given you a better understanding of some of this biological information that would be very helpful to you in making your decisions, your voting decisions concerning ANWR and some of these other items that—that are before
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us. But at least the last few years, I did begin to teach the biology—ju—the river biology curriculum and I think we were getting it right then. In that situation, we’d have people coming in from throughout the community. Doctor Rolanda Gattis, a board member for the Rio Grande International Study Center, a dentist here in town, also has a Master’s in ichthyology. We’d have him out for a section. He’d do a lab, take the kids out into the field setting, identifying. We’d have the—another individual who is the—who is a
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coyote control person for this area and we’d take the students out to his area and he would show them how he traps the coyotes and all that kind of stuff and a—and the other animals. And sometimes, you know, students didn’t like that but they can kind of see hey, this is what the situation is. Another former student of mine, David Gonzalez, works at the bridge with the USDA. And of course, he would come over with my students and do a taxonomy program and he would explain to them how he’s making his living by using taxonomy to identify plants and insects and so on down at the bridge. Things that
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are coming across the bridge that maybe are going to blocked at the bridge to keep spreading—to keep from spreading disease and so on. And so I think this kind of situation—and we had numerous other individuals coming in who are actually putting their work—who are putting their biological and scientific information into making a living. They came and spoke to the students and sometimes the students went out in the field with them and I think this—these students had a—a much better understanding of how biology relates to their lives than any of the other students I ever had. And I had
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some good students in the past, it wasn’t their fault. It was my fault and I guess that’s kind of the way the system was working. And I will at least—I’m least happy that I found out a little bit of it a few years before retirement.
DT: It seems like you’re not only using your ecology class to teach kids the practical applications, maybe how they can make a career, how they can make a living in biology or related disciplines, but also using the local ecosystem. The Rio Grande as a kind of a case study or a test bed for some of these ecological theories, is that right?
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JE: I think so. I think very much so. And in fact, you know, talking about our local students here, you know, our first and second year students, I’d also like to mention that now—for I guess for about five years or so—I’ve worked with the South Texas Environmental Education Research Group in which I have some students who are already—some—many of them are medical school students, many of them are in the Master’s of Health program. In fact, some of them are already practicing physicians. But I’ll have them, say, for nine or ten months out of the year, I’ll have them for one day out
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of the month when they come down to do a rotation. And so we’re—we’re actually using the river. We spend the morning out on the river, looking at various types of processes that have been taking place, like the raw sewage entering the river from—from the Laredo. Pointing out also that raw sewage also enters the river sometimes from (?). We’re looking at such issues as erosion; we’re looking at issues such as warehouses located along the river and its tributaries containing no telling what, probably everything
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under the sun. We—we make these students aware of that just as we have made a—our local younger students aware. But I think these folks, you know, have a background when they come, these folks with the STEER program, and they have a background, they have training already. And this is always good for me because I have these people, many
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of them that have trained as much as I have, and some in different fields, like I say, medicine or veterinary medicine or so on. And—and so I’m learning a lot every time they come down and talk to me because some of them come from Canada, some of them come all out through the Northeast and occasionally we’ve had someone from across the Rockies, like California. But most of the time, it’s the eastern half of the U.S. So that has been a—been a big help to me in this whole program to—to realize what’s happening throughout other places in the country and that—that, you know, they
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always—we always have this session in the afternoon where they give me feedback. I—I like to get it when they’ve been here at least a week and I get their reactions to Laredo and the border and how it compares to places where they’re from. And very often, I’ll get some good feedback. And I’m always trying to get them, hey, folks, why don’t you come down here and work on some of these problems along the border because they’re—they’re seeing the problems when they’re here.
DT: Well, maybe you can give us some examples of two things. One is, in these younger students, maybe epiphanies. You know, the first exposure and kind of awareness of some problem or theory. And then with these older students, maybe some of the connections or the differences that they’re seeing between their home community and Laredo.
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JE: Yeah. Let me start talking and maybe I can hook something or—to make those connections. Talking about the younger students and—and—and thinking about how this kind of program can stimulate them as compared to our older program where you come in the first day. You know, we’re going to start talking about chemistry today and you go to the lab. No, several years back, you probably remember the big fanfare in Austin over the nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca and I realized that my friend from Sierra Blanca, Bill Addington—in fact, I met Bill first at a meeting in—in El Paso. The Rio Grande Rio Bravo Coalition meeting. And he took this (?) in fact; we gave him a ride back to Sierra
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Blanca and that’s when he gave me the videotape that had been put together, I think—I don’t know if that was Sierra Club or who actually—there were several people involved in putting that together. And of course, a lot had already transpired in Mexico and—and throughout the U.S. But Laredo was kind of in the dark, like it—it often is about a lot of things. But we brought—I—I brought the videotape back that Bill gave me and we had this river curriculum class going. I believe this was the first year, maybe—the first or second year that we had it going. And on the Friday afternoon meeting where we gathered everybody together, all the instructors that was involved—it was kind of a
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team—team teaching effort and we had different classes that were all hooked together. And we had them together on a Friday afternoon and they showed the video. Well, I mean, boom, the students were really struck by that video. And one of the students asked me would you like to get this on—on Channel 13? And I said well, sure. And she said well, I got a sister over there. And somebody else, well, would you like to get it on the Spanish station, KLDO? Well, yeah. And so they got this on TV. Then, Tricia Cortez
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with the—the Laredo Morning Times came out and did a story, then it was front page in the Laredo Times. And then the mayor, after it came out front page, and Henry Cuellar got very interested in it. I had talked to Henry a year before and I said Henry, we need to do something about that Sierra Blanca waste dump. And he was saying well, you know, it’s kind of a preemptive strike. We’re doing this and that will keep something else from coming down on us. I don’t remember the exact argument. But anyway, nothing happened over that year. But suddenly when it came out front page and was on the TV,
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Henry said well, you know what, well, I’m on the appropriations committee. If—if they pass this thing, we can block the funds to it. And I—and I—I give credit—I give Henry credit for that because what I see in a good politician, somebody that’s responsive, somebody when they see is going to be able to move and change. And, you know, over the years, we’ve seen those kind of changes take place. Sometimes in—in local politicians, if you can get around and—and show them and—but after all, let’s be fair. A councilman, a commissioner, a state legislator, national congressman—that’s a lot of
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stuff going at—even at the city council, there’s a lot of stuff. And so they’re going to have to depend on other folks and I think the big thing is they better try to find the folks that’s going to steer them right. And that sometimes is not so easy. But anyway, that did happen and so when all the big meeting was in Austin, you may have been there when the—when the TNRCC commissioners were meeting. Well, we had our city bus with the—the mayor and a whole group of us going up there and we joined that crowd that
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day. When the commissioners said well, you know, okay, we’re going to, you know, vote that project down. Well, that’s—was kind of interesting, you know, too because that was—that was just before George was getting ready to run for president, right? He was then governor. I think it would’ve not been too good for his campaign to have that blight. And th—this is my speculation, right? My speculation. I don’t want to have any facts here. But it seems kind of reasonable. I think if I were running for president, I would not want that Sierra Blanca thing behind me. But I—with—I know that I have had trouble in
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times past with TNRCC, now which is TCEQ, sometimes in getting them to be involved in some of the situations that are going on in town. Not to say they’ve never done anything because I think they were working on one of the big dumps that we had in the river downstream. Last I heard, it was in court. I’m not sure how that—I need to check one of these days to see how that’s come out. But maybe that’s—maybe that was, you know, part of the background of getting a current president into office. I think it was a factor and I don’t think we had that much to do with it locally, but at least it was good to
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see that our local people were involved. And I think the fact that—that Henry was on the appropriations committee could’ve been a factor, right.
DT: Well, you said that your students saw this film that featured Bill Addington and discussed Sierra Blanca and I’m curious if you have any ideas about what really caught your students’ interest? Was it the aspect of public health out there or some idea of environmental justice, the equity of there being Hispanic community, poor community that was going to have this kind of sacrifice zone out there? Or was it a more selfish concern, well, if this thing leaks, it’s going to come down the Rio Grande and it’s going to affect our water quality here in Laredo?
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JE: I think it was probably—I think it was probably all of the above. I think they were kind of incensed to see that, here, you’ve got this small community that’s going to get this crammed down their throats, right? And even though some people there didn’t want it. Now I know some did agree because you always got that group around, maybe you’re going to make a little money out of it, who are ready to take it regardless. Just like now, we’re talking about, you know, somebody wants to put a ten-story high waste dump out on Highway 359. Well, we got one commissioner who’s running now who has
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come out diametrically opposed to that. And I—I just don’t think we ought to be taking garbage from everywhere in the country. But I think they were concerned about probably all those factors because we didn’t—this was sort of a—a new program that we had tried to put together. And in fact, we had a—we had a NSF grant for that and it was something that was supposed to get going and—and we wanted to keep it going. And we do have a rigor—rig—river curriculum course now, but it’s not quite the way it was then. This is the hard thing to keep. It’s hard sometimes to keep this thing going because your administration—your school administration may not really support you the way they
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should. But, no, I think—I think we had students in there who did care. Most of them—most of them were elementary education majors in that particular course and I think they, you know—I think the fact that they were going into elementary education, they were concerned about students, they’re concerned about people. And I think they were concerned about the whole thing and this idea of—of the potential of radioactive materials leeching into the water and affecting us downstream, that obviously is going to bother them. But I—I sort of think they were concerned about a number of issues there.
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Well, you know, we used to—we used to sit and some of the students before NAFTA—really, when NAFTA was being discussed so much, and we would sit around and try to visualize the effects of NAFTA. What’s that going to do to our community? Is it going to be good or bad? And it was interesting. We could get students engaged. I mean, I find—I find that when you expect a lot of students, even in this day and time when a lot of people bemoan and complain—when you really—when you find students and you expect a lot out of them and you give them something interesting that they can get their minds and their teeth into, now you can get some pretty good responses.
DT: Well, you mentioned NAFTA. What were some of (inaudible)
DT: When we broke, we were just talking about NAFTA and some discussions pro and con about it. Maybe you can elaborate what your students and you were thinking?
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JE: Yes, because we, you know, we said well, we’re going to have the NADBank and we’re going to have BECC and so on, which is going to provide funding to do studies and to sort of keep the environment intact and, you know, maybe that will work and, of course, it’s going to provide a lot more international trade and so on which will provide funding for doing these kinds of environmental actions. And so we would—we would talk about that and, I think, you know, pretty intellectually honest, trying to think which way is it going to go? I would have to say at this point, from the standpoint (?) from
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the standpoint of environmental quality, I—I would say NAFTA has been a negative for this area and I can elaborate on that a bit. Course we already had—we already had 25 or 30 million gallons of raw sewage entering the river years ago. And then, even before NAFTA, we got the wastewater treatment plant. That—the—in Lar—Laredo, that was started sometime before by some forward thinking individuals. We got that online and that cut the wastewater effluent tremendously. We still have a lot going in and I’m told
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by some folks that within a year, that infrastructure’s supposed to be there to capture the rest of that. So we’ll see what happens on that issue. But why do I think NAFTA is a negative—a net negative for the environment? NAFTA has stimulated tremendous growth. Laredo has been billed as, sometimes as the fastest growing city in, at least, Texas or I’ve heard somebody say the US. I don’t know about the veracity of all those
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numbers. But I know it’s growing rapidly, I know that. As it grows rapidly, that means more warehousing and—and the warehousing has traditionally, most of it, has been along the streams and along the rivers, along the tributaries entering the river. Commercial growth has grown tremendous—I mean, retail businesses and so on. House construction has been tremendous all the way around Laredo, and of course Laredo has only got north, east, and kind of southeast because we got Mexico on the other side. So all around the periphery of Laredo, north to south, we have a lot of home building. There has been little
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regard given to the preservation of streams—and I’m not just thinking of that from the standpoint of yeah, it would be nice to have green spaces to look at, nice for birds and so on. No, I’m thinking of situations where conditions have been set up where people’s houses flood, where their foundations crack, sometimes even their walls crack. This is, I think, related to very, very rapid growth. Really, I would say, pretty much uncontrolled growth. Think of this for a moment. In the city of Laredo now, I guess approaching, what 180, 200 thousand, somewhere in that neighborhood. I don’t know what the official
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figure is. Closer to 200 thousand. We’ve got—for the whole city, we’ve got two general plumbing inspectors. Sounds kind of like a small number and I was talking the other day to a plumber who is a former student of mine who’s kept up with this. And he says those guys are doing anywhere from 25 to 50 inspections a day for each. And I just heard that one of those plumbers has been suspended for some reason, so right now, we’ve got one plumber inspector working for this whole city with all of the growth that you can see.
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You’ve probably seen it just here in town. I was also told by the plumber that there’s really no control right now over the lawn sprinkler industry—that there is—that there has been no enforcement of backflow—plumbing backflow for the last five years. Now that’s pretty scary when you couple that with the work of Doctor Soriano, Asuncion Soriano, who’s a pediatric gastroenterologist here in town and she treats numerous children with gastrointestinal disorders, giardia, for example, as some bacteria gets—probably H pylori and so on, that—that could be entering the drinking water system
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through these backflow situations. And I’ll explain kind of what I’m talking about there because a lot of people are not familiar with that. But see, before when she was talking—and I met with her once before because the—we had looked tentatively at some kind of grant proposal—but I had thought well, maybe, you know, because I’ve looked at the water plant—water treatment for a good while and I think it’s pretty decent system. So I’m thinking well, I don’t think it’s the water treatment plant. But now that I’ve talked to my former student who’s the plumber and I—I realize all these problems out there. Let’s
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say, for example, you have a lawn sprinkler hooked into your—your potable water supply, which is the way they are. And let’s say that there is no check valve to stop backflow and that sprinkler, it’s—the sprinkler heads are in the lawn. And let’s say that there is a leak in the pipe or something and the pressure drops back in the main line. That’s just going to be a siphon, sucking the water back in from the lawn. Now let’s say on the lawn, of course, you’ve got soil there. You maybe have fertilizer, you may have
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pesticides and you may have feces from pets. You could be pulling that in to the water—to the drinking water supply. Let’s assume—let’s assume that somebody has a con—they’re out there—they’re fertilizing or, you know, putting chemicals on their lot and they’ve got a bucket there, a gallon or five gallon bucket, watering it. They leave the hose in it because they’ve been filling it. Pressure drops in the line, guess what? (?) I mean, people have died from that kind of thing in—in places. Not in Laredo that I know of, but you know, across the country, people have died from that kind of backflow. Let’s
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say, for example, and we had—we had a spill out on the Mine’s road here in Laredo a year or so ago, which one of the main sewers line broke. And it sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the river above our water intake. But now, let’s say that you had, during that time, a break in the water line and water lines and sewer lines are very often really close together. Let’s say that you had a break in a sewer line and you spill all this stuff out the same time you had a break in a water line. Maybe something hit them, you know, and broke them at the same time. Or you had a break in a
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sewer line and sometime later you have a break in a potable water line. I mean, that—those bacteria and so on are going to stick around after a while in that soil, so you—they could be picked up and put into the drinking water line. So when I hear these kind of things, I’m thinking, boy, you know, maybe Doctor Soriano is onto something here with those cases of gastrointestinal problems in—in young people here in the community. And I know I’ve digressed, we were talking about the course and—and—and—and—and
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our students and how we hooked them in. And I wanted you—I—I guess I wa—I wanted to point out there how these students can become very interested in what’s going on. How they got interested in the—in the Sierra Blanca thing and—and how they took action. I mean, these students—I credit the students. Look, I brought the tape back, but without the action of these local students, we would not have had the press. Without the press, we wouldn’t have had Congressman Cuella and Mayor Betty Flores involved. So to me, that’s the kind—that’s the kind of biology that we ought to be teaching. That’s the
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kind of science that we ought to be teaching. And in fact, we had integrated in that program, we had instructor from Speech, we had a instructor from English and—and Algebra and we were trying to get Government hooked in, which is, to me, makes—is the way we should be teaching our curriculum. It should be built around some kind of theme where you bring students and teachers in from all areas—all the academic areas. And then things become meaningful and it’s actually less work on the part of students because rather than having a term paper in this—in English and a term paper over here in
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Biology and so on, they can be working on one term paper and getting input from all these other folks. To me, that’s the way it should go. Now I’m not sure that I’ve still answered your question about hooking the—the—two-year students in with the STEER group, although at times, I have had—I’ve invited—it’s always open for students to visit with the STEER group and we’ve had some of them. And in fact, some of the students—I’m trying to think right now. I believe I’ve had a couple of students that I had had earlier who recycled in the STEER program. They had gone off to either medical school or to, you know, public health school, maybe in—in San Antonio somewhere and then came back in to the STEER program that way.
DT: Well, I guess I would have a follow up question. You said that the river curriculum course seemed to work well, but as time has gone by, it’s evolved somewhat and I’m curious if you got any sort of, to use your analogy before, any back pressure from the administration where they might contest an academic course becoming one that becomes more of a political exercise.
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JE: That’s an interesting question. I think I’ve—basically I think I could answer that by saying I’ve had pretty go—I’ve had good support from the administration and I—you know, back in (inaudible) let’s give you an example there and I still want to stay with that, I—if—if I can. But I—I want to come back and—and talk about that administrative support. Back in 1998, when the US Army Corps of Engineers was coming down to construct the Border Patrol Road—what we call the Border Patrol Road here. Joint Taskforce H, which involved a number of law—law enforcement agencies. We—we
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took an active stance and, in fact, the Rio Grande International Study Center, which is a nonprofit organization was one of the plaintiffs in that court—in that—in that case because we did not want the road passing through the trail, the Paso del Indio Nature Trail that we had constructed. And of course, that joined in with, I think, MALDEF was
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involved in it—the Mexican Amer—Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and that involved some people down in the Rio Bravo and so on. So we were involved in that. Now President Dovalina to his credit—president of LCC—told me, he said well, you know, I had some board members saying man, you ought to throttle this guy. And Dovalina told them no, it—he’s got academic freedom. And I was still working for the college at that time. I was director of the center but I was working—still working for the college. And I have to credit Doctor Dovalina for that. So that was a positive thing
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there. I—I—I didn’t, you know, a—he very pointedly—he—he made the point that I wasn’t under pressure from my job in that situation. Now let me take it further though, let me take it further. We had the—we got the National Science Foundation grant to develop this river curriculum program, this integrated program that’s going to bring in students and teachers from throughout the college to focus on the Rio Grande. Each semester, I had to scramble every time to get the—to make the course because it was never well advertised. We worked on it and worked on it and it—for example, it was not
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in the telephone registration, what they call OLAY, the telephone registration program for enrolling in classes. And finally, the last semester that we had the grant, I finally—I went personally to computer folks and I said can we get this in OLAY because I was told before we couldn’t do it. Oh, yeah, we can do that. So—but you’ll have to go talk to the academic dean. And so we did. He said well, you got to okay it with the registrar. We did that. That was in the spring, before the—the fall semester in which, you know, would
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be the last funded semester. So I thought hey, we’re—finally we’re going to have this thing done. I got back in the fall and they told me in the computer department that the dean had cancelled the telephone registration. Not cancelled the course, the course was still there. But then one last semester, I had to scrounge and advertise and have all kinds of things set up around the time of registration to make the class. I hate to have to say that, but that’s what happened. It’s the truth. And I—I feel really bad because I—I think that was an opportunity for us to get something going that could’ve been really
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continuous, to have this interaction. We still have a rigor—river curriculum course. We have Miss—Miss Waneth, who actually took my place as director at the center. She still does that and does an excellent job, but you know, it’s just not supported to have that broad, campus-wide interaction. Now someone was telling me the other day, you know what? They’ve been talking now at the administrative level about this, how are they calling it, integrated teaching or whatever. Kind of like you were doing. I don’t know. But I feel like we let a lot of—I feel like we let the students down. I feel like we did not do what we said we were going to do as far as our promises to the National Science
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Foundation. And I really regret that because that’s one of the things I had seen for years and years that we needed to integrate. We need to pull this whole thing together so that students can get a better understanding. And you know where I got that idea; I learned so much from my kids—my own children. My son, who’s a physician now in Hillsborough, Texas. I used to watch what he did and when he came to community college. And I told
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both my kids, look, if you can show me why it’s important for you to go to some other place to start with, some university where—you give me your program, I’ll go with you. Otherwise, you’re going to go right here. And they were okay with that. And—but—but my son was the kind of a kid, you know, even in elementary school, he had all his work done. Before he’d do anything else at night, his work was done. When he came to LCC, I no—he always kind of competed with the instructors. Whatever the instructor knew, he needed to know. And I watched how he integrated his chemistry, his physics and his
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mathematics and his biol—I saw how he sort of did this. Then I realized that most students were not doing that and that’s—that—I think that’s where I got the concept. Why don’t we integrate this thing? Why don’t we have this curric—river curriculum program, building it around the river and sort of engineering this understanding? Not leaving it up to the individual student to have to kind of put it together. I mean, some students can do that. Some students will get it all and put it together and that’s great and
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they’re going to make it. But what about those students who have a hard time putting it together. I don’t think I could’ve put it together back then. I—I think my son is—is ahead of wherever I was. I don’t think I could’ve put it together. I think I would’ve been better to be in a structured program where I was helped put it together.
DT: Well, speaking of this integration. It’s kind of a holistic way of learning. Is there a connection between the teaching that you were doing and maybe some of the research that you were pursuing as a professional?
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JE: Yeah. I think—okay, for example, the 1994 and 1997 binational studies of toxic materials in the Rio Grande. Had I not had the PhD in—in molecular bio, in which we had talked about heavy metals—you know, worked on heavy metals, in fact, did a project—did my actual lab work at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, looking at the effects of methyl mercury chloride and (?) radiation, (?) on the bat brain—blood-brain barrier in—in rats. I just think having that kind of background, that kind of training, even though I’m in the field here and looking at these studies, these grab samples that were done by the TNRCC for those two studies, ’94 and ’97, I think really gave me an
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understanding—a better understanding of—of what was reported so that I could interpret for the students, and also interpret it for individuals because that first—that ’94 report came out, was just a bunch of drab reading, statistics and so on, and if you look at the—and this is what bothers me about TNRCC and now TCEQ. If you look at the presidential summary, if you look at the—the summary. The exec—I’m sorry, the executive summary at the beginning. I look at that—if that’s all I looked at and I’m a bureaucrat, I’d deep six it because there’s no problem. Yet when I went in and we started graphing—we did bar graphs on a lot of these things up and down the river, particularly in our area—we began to see wow, you know, there’s some—there’s high levels. I think we had 19 different chemicals that reeked—exceeded certain standards. In the 1997 study, over by our water treatment plant, they—they filleted a bass over there and the—
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and the bass fillet had methyl mecury chloride of one milligram per kilogram of body weight. I—and I called right then. I called the—the Food and Drug Administration office in Dallas and I talked to a lady and I said what—you know, what would—how—what does this mean to you guys in the regulatory agency there? And she told me if we were to find—if we were checking the fish, if we sampled a fish that was crossing state lines under interstate commerce, we would see—that had that level of mercury, we would seize that fish and we would start an investigation to get to the bottom of why that
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level of mercury was there. And yet, that fish was taken in a grab sample. That should’ve triggered—in my mind, should’ve trickered a very—should’ve triggered, by TNRCC, a very careful study of the area. Coming in and taking bass tissue, that species and working on that species, finding out, you know, was this a fluke? Or is this statistically significant? It rocked on with no study. Finally there was a subsequent study and that study involved a number of different species of fish—not a huge number, but a number of different species—some of which were taken above the mouth of Manadas
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Creek where I suspect the problem was coming from because that was, you know, had been 65 or 70 years, an—an antimony smelter which processed ores from all over the world, including China and so on, which had in there not only antimony, but mercury and chromium and other heavy metals. But these fish in that subsequent study was taken from upstream of there in different places. I think—I thought the whole study should’ve focused right there at the water intake and it should’ve been the same species in which
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the mercury was found before and the same tissues. I mean, really control that experiment. To my knowledge, there has been no, what I would consider, good scientifically controlled experiment yet to answer that question. So that question again, I—I’m still—I digressed again, I think, from your—the question originally was…?
DT: About how you integrate your teaching with your research.
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JE: Yeah. Okay. Then teaching. Having that—that research background helped me with teaching the students in this course, but it has also helped me teach, I believe, people in government. For exam—let me—let’s say, for example, after we did our bar graphs in the—the 1994 study, I talked with one of the gentlemen from TNRCC and he said yeah, we pribly—we should’ve had that kind of stuff and when they did their second study, they had more assistance. The second—first study was about that thick and the next one was about like that. So I—I think you can have effect, but it is difficult because—I don’t
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know, what is it? I’m—I think I mentioned to you earlier, the big problems I see, the two big culprits, part of our human psyche is greed and ignorance. And ignorance is tied in with laziness, I guess. I mean, to be educated to know something—in fact, we’re all ignorant. We’ve got these few areas that we lighten up, but if you—if you’re too lazy to dig into it, you’re not going to know. And I’m afraid that that’s true in—with all people, in general. I mean, not all people, but certainly it’s too common in our bureaucracies, in
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our teaching, the institutions, everywhere. That people, you know, kind of, that’s a little bit further than I’d like to go. Takes a little too much effort. And so when you don’t know, then you’ve got a problem. And then when you cook in that human nature of greed, and we all have it. We all have it. I have it, you have—we all—we—we’ve got a certain greed, it—it’s built in. We have that. Now it can be taken too far. But when you hook that together—and like in our local situation right here, I mean, we’ve got some people with a lot of money that—that was probably inherited because they inherited land
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which got oil and gas and, you know, maybe they’ve got fairly good intelligence. I’m not saying they don’t have good intelligence, but sometimes maybe they haven’t developed it the way they should and they’ve got money along with ignorance and tremendous technological capabilities can create terrible problems. I mean, in the course of an hour, you could wipe out something very significant with bulldozers and other heavy earth moving equipment. For example, right on the Laredo—well, just off of…
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DT: Let’s resume where we last broke off and you were talking about trying to give some examples of how your research might pull back into education.
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JE: Yeah. And I—I think I had mentioned the fact that the sort of the toxicological training in connection with the molecular bio and so on had helped in interpreting the 1994 and 1997 binational studies of toxic materials in the Rio Grande and how those had been used to inform my students, those at the first and second year levels, as well as those—I’m still using those with the South Texas Environmental Education Research group, the medical students. And so I still use that particular data.
DT: We were talking particularly about how greed and technology and ignorance can work together and that you’d found through your research and teaching that sometimes good information that you develop doesn’t necessarily play out well in policy or what people do. And maybe you could give us an example of that?
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JE: Yeah, let—let me give you an example here of a situation that I think the individual—and I’m not mentioning names of individuals—but an individual had a, you know, a good-hearted attempt. I mean, wanted to do something basically good. I mean, who could argue for building—who could argue against building soccer fields for our kids to play on? I mean, we need that kind of stuff. So there’s no problem with that. And yet we had an individual in the city, in fact, I think even working for the city. Maybe even the Environmental Services Department in the city, who in looking for a place to build soccer fields had evidently gotten some permission from the landowners
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down by the river, in the floodplain, the vega, to build soccer field. Now—so it—it so happened that this was in—in the flood zone and, in fact, was covered with water in 1998 and certainly covered with water in the flood of ’54, which was, you know, like 60 feet off of the—the river surface. But at any rate, I was—I used to walk the trail because we had worked the—we had worked on getting the Paso del Indio Nature Trail developed and I used to think boy, I would like to extend that trail on from the college and move on up the river if we could get permission from that landowner to put that trail in because it
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was beautiful mesquite forest up there, you know, with big—I mean, big mesquite trees at the base. And I would walk that trail about every day and—and one Monday morning, I came in after the weekend and I walked down and suddenly I looked out there and that mesquite wood was gone. It had been annihilated by a bulldozer. And then when I inquired into the situation, this individual had—had done that with the idea of building soccer field. Well, of course, the soccer fields never got put there. For one thing, it’s—it’s—it’s down in the—in the vega of the river. Probably, you know, who knows what
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kind of laws were broken—I never pursued that. But at any rate, they finally put more soccer fields up on the el—Laredo Community College campus, which is what should’ve happened at first and then that property should’ve been used to extend the trail and leave it pretty much intact. But there’s a situation, I think, in—ignorance was involved. Ignorance and—and—coupled with a motive that nobody could question, right? I mean, the idea of wanting to create more soccer fields for students. So we have to deal with that
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kind of thing. Then we have other situations where you’ve got ignorance coupled with greed. I’ve dealt with a number of situations in town, one I’m thinking of in my mind right now is located on one of the creek systems here in Laredo. And three developers sort of converged on one part of the creek system. One of them was on one branch of the creek, to the north, and where you had a lot of small tributaries coming together to form what is called in the—in the field a third order stream. Third order stream has to—that’s based on—on the US—US Geological Survey map—topographic map scaled one to 24
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thousand. You see the little blue lines on that map representing stream. Where you see the first blue lines that just end up there, those would be the first order streams. Where two of those come together, you got a second order. Where two second orders come together, you got a third order and so on. And so in one of these situations, we had a third order stream, a pretty good size stream coming into this particular area that I have in mind here where people suffered flooding problems. Then you had another individual on the stream directly north of where these folks are located. And then you had a property
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owner to the east and then you had the developer of the property itself, so you had three developers involved. The developer where the houses were located had extended his street too far toward the stream and was down in the flood plain. The landowner, developer to the north had brought all of those little tributaries of this third order stream system into one big channel, greatly reducing the absorptive area and sending a lot more water down, plus had begun to build streets and houses and so on. So that sent a lot of
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water down. And then the other developer just to the north, just immediately adjacent to the homeowners, had diverted the third order stream, filled it, diverted it through a channel, right angle turn, another right angle turn, and sent it down toward the houses toward the second order stream that was coming in from the east. In other words, he had combined two streams next to the houses, so the streams were now on a higher order stream with a lot more water capa—capacity than they had been. And so every one of those developers, you know, I didn’t want to cause anybody any trouble; they just wanted
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all of the available space possible on which to put houses and businesses. And to do that, they all pushed the envelope. Based on that, there were seven homes that flooded. Also some vacant lots that flooded, but seven homes that flooded because of that interaction. Kind of interesting now, the course—we’ll want to try to figure out well, you know, what’s the relative responsibility of the different developers? But—but this kind of situation takes place over a good portion of Laredo. I—I’d say two to three years ago, by that time, I had identified at least 60 flooding episodes, 60 different businesses and houses that had flooded. I’m sure there are a lot more than that. But this is the result
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when you have greed, ignorance, a lot of technology to move a lot of earth and to reorganize the order of the earth and the lack of coordination and control. And that’s where government, I think, comes in. Government, in my opinion, should be a referee to sort of be sure that the game is played fairly, just like an athletic co—or like an athletic referee or umpire, whatever, would make certain that things are done according to the rules that are going to be fair for all. And it’s pretty obvious to me that we do not have that fairness in Laredo, Texas today.
DT: Let’s talk about maybe a third aspect of your life. You talked about educating kids and teachers and even politicians and doing research or interpreting other people’s research. And then it seems like there’s a third angle and that’s that you and others grouped together to form something called the Rio Grande International Study Center, maybe as an effort to bring a little more fairness, lessen some of the ignorance, maybe increase some of the coordination. Can you talk about how that group started and what some of the problems they’re trying to confront and some of the programs they undertook?
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JE: Yeah. And talking about ignorance, when I say that, that is not to put anybody down. We’re all ignorant. We get—shine little bits of light here and there. When we first started the Rio Grande International Study Center, and it got sort of started roughly around 1990, but it was actually chartered in 1994, I believe. And when we started that, we were ignorant. I was ignorant. I mean, I started a learning process that’s been going on since then. What we knew, though, what we knew, that there was millions of gallons of raw sewage going into the river, at least from Nuevo Laredo. We didn’t know about this—that all the stuff on this side. Although I do remember we knew some of it was going in from the Sakata Creek Wastewater Trant—Plant back during the first Earth Day. And I said something about it, but I didn’t do much because here I’m a young, wet
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behind the ears teacher here. But Lawrence Barry—I want to mention another name here. Lawrence Barry, deceased individual now, stood up on that issue, I remember. And he set forth the motion that brought down a political dynasty that had been here for a long time and that was the Mayor Martin regime. And course, he had other people helping back there, he had some supporters, but that was the process. That was on 60 Minutes, by the way, and they—they showed the snake pit, which was down at the Hamilton Hotel. They called it the snake pit, where they had the big leaders—political
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leaders and so on and the community meeting. Lawrence Barry did that. Okay, I just—that triggered that idea. Now let me come back, though, to—to the beginning of the Rio Grande International Study Center, which means I got to fast forward now. We’re going to come into the early 1990’s.
DT: Before you fast forward, why don’t you just complete that story about the Earth Day back in the early 70’s?
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JE: Yeah, okay. I recall we were seeing—let’s see. I’m trying to remember why I was down there. Maybe somebody told me, but we had seen sort of a sudsy material, sudsy looking stuff coming out of the wastewater treat pla—plant and going into the Rio Grande. Didn’t look too good. And of course, I think I was in—when was the first Earth Day? I’m trying to remember the date of that. I think it was back in 1980 something?
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Was 70’s? 70? Wow. Okay. I think I was—I was certainly involved in that. And I remember we talked about that issue and we showed pictures and I had—yes, I had Mister Pettus, I believe, who was in charge of the water at that time, come speak to an Earth Day meeting at the college. You know, I mean, how colleges are—I got to be realis—colleges and universities, very often, their—by the time they get there, everybody’s got to be nice and, you know, everything’s okay. Not too much hassle, at least that’s the way it’s been here. And so I was doing that kind of thing. I was doing the
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typical thing that you’re going to see around a college or university. But Lawrence Barry—Lawrence Barry, who was a custodian. He was—in fact, he was head of maintenance for the college, the Laredo Junior College, at that time. Somehow got involved, and I don’t know what all the ins and outs of how he involved. I think he was probably tied in with Mister Tatangelo, who finally became mayor. He became mayor after that, Mayor Tatangelo and—and he’s still living. He’s 96 or 7 years old and, you know, he was a very activist kind of guy. And one that I like—I’m not saying, you know,
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he doesn’t—he probably d—I’m sure he doesn’t see everything the way I see it, but he was a go getter and I think made some positive changes for the city. But I think maybe Mister Barry was tied in with him somehow. But Barry was down collecting data. I mean, here he is a maintenance guy. He’s collecting data and he’s bringing this to the public. And like I say, pretty soon, I don’t know if he did—if he stimulated—well, he stimulated it. I don’t know who actually called them down, but I remember 60 Minutes came down and did—and there was a national televised appearance. Of course, that—you can imagine what that did to the local political setup. They—they didn’t like it. But I think that was the beginning of the end of that particular regime, which I’m not sure—do you have another question? I’m not sure what else I can say about that at the moment unless you might raise a question of it.
DT: Want to clarify if we can, there was some sort of pollution that was coming into—some kind of pipe and it came through an outfall and you…
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JE: Yeah, I think—I—and I don’t—see, I don’t remember the specific details. I’m not even sure I was that much into it at that time. As to what was hap—we knew it was sudsy looking water and I don’t remember if they had a—probably—probably Barry did have somebody a—analyze it, but I don’t remember exactly what was there. But you know, I don’t know if there was fecal ma—if there was fecal material. It’s very likely there could’ve been fecal material. But I was down there and, seemed to me, I got more of a chemical odor from the situation. That’s been a—that’s been a while back. But I know—I know one thing, it had political implications—strong political implication, which did change regimes as far as city government was concerned.
DT: It maybe had the same flavor of what happened in the mid-90’s and early 90’s when you were putting together the Rio Grande International Study Center.
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DT: Maybe you can fast forward.
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JE: Okay, now let’s go—let’s go to that because we would spend time down in river—Doctor Vaughan and I would spend time down on the river and, along with other, and of course, we would see fecal material in the river. I—I remember the carp down at the bend of the river below the college, there’d be a lot of fecal material floating out there and the carp would just come up and—and eat the fecal material, right. Not too pleasant an idea, but that’s what hap—that’s what happens. And if you—of course, if you go back to the history of carp, back over in the Orient, that’s—I mean, they have them in the, you know, the moats around there where—and the rice paddies and so on and where the
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honey buckets are dumped, the feces and so on and the carp use that for a food source. And we’d see bottles floating in the river. Oh, and the thing that really—yeah, this is—this is the thing that really got me back in. Doctor Ken took Tom Vaughan and I on his toxic tour over in Nuevo Laredo. And during that tour, we looked at an open garbage dump, which was—by the way, was close to the country club over there. And I think that garbage dump has finally been disposed of, I believe that’s the case. But he took—Doctor Ken took us down to the bend of the river, below where Laredo Community
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College is located now, to where raw sewage was—was floating into the river. And I remember looking out there and I saw sort of a—a covering—a covering on the bottom of the river, it’s sort of a rusty, red color to it, a frothy looking material on the bottom. And I followed it up to on a rock where it came up on the surface and on the rock surface, it was a white layer. And then I realized what it was. There was a sheet as far as I could see around there—a sheet of plastic baby diapers that had washed down from the Arroyo because there was no sewage treatment or anything. And so people had just dumped the
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diapers and—and they had washed down and covered over. Well, you know, that has negative effects, too, for your macroinvertabrates, like the dragonfly larvae, caddis flies, all that kind of thing which are necessary for river health because that—that means they don’t really have a—a good—I mean, that—that could sort of cover over the bottom. They don’t have a good surface in which to develop. And of course, that probably cuts down their oxygen supply, cuts down their access to the bottom and so on. So anyway, that—that really made an impression on me and I think that was the very image that’s
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still in my mind. And—and of course, we photographed it and I’ve still got the—the image somewhere else, probably digitized. That image is what led us to develop the—the river curriculum course to start with. So we had a little group before we got a National Science Foundation, and this goes way back. We just got a group of people and in that first group, we had—we had ordinary first and second year students, Doctor Ken joined the class.
DT: This is Adolph Ken?
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JE: Adolph Ken joined—he was in my class because he wanted to be in there. (?) And we had Doctor Rolanda Gettis, the dentist who’s on our board now. He was part of the class—all these people enrolled in the class, right? So it’s—you had these adults and the young kids altogether. Doctor Vaughan was over there with us each time. I don’t know if he enrolled or just came to the class, you know. But anyway, we had these folks in the class and we were all starting out, you know, what do we know? We know that the river is a mess. Why is the river a mess? And see, then Doctor Ken owned one of those warehouses over there. And that’s—that’s why I really—I like to try to make—I know
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I’ve made some pretty strong statements here today, but still we’d like to try to attempt to deal with people and educate as much as possible and say look, just because you’re doing something right now that’s not very good, you know, we don’t mean to put you down by that, but you need to really think about what you’re doing because all of us have been involved before. I mean, what do you say when you point the finger at somebody, you got three pointing back at you, right? And—and no way, I—I mean, I feel sort of guilty when I think back over some of my actions in the past, but it takes education to realize how you’re affecting. When I was growing up in east Texas, it seemed like to me that everything north of Hawkins was the big woods. It probably went to the North Pole, right? That’s just the way—the impression you sort of have. And you know, if you
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throw down a chewing gum wrapper, well, you know, what big deal is that? But you realize after a while—you know, back then it’s hard to see this cumulative effect and we’ve got a lot of people here in town, if you’ve driven around much, you’ve no doubt have seen the plastic bags and everything scattered all over the place. And people just go along, I’ve seen them, (sound), just like that. Just throw it down out of the car. So somehow changing these attitudes, but that’s what this course was about. We started out with people—we just realized there was a problem; we wanted to see what we could do to make changes. From that course, we said hey, we need to get an organization going
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and so eventually we were chartered in 1994 specifically as a nonprofit organization. I believe it was 1995 when Meg Gettis, who’s with (?) here in town—I don’t know if you met her yet or not. (?). Meg was director of the Center at that time and Meg was able to, at that time, get us a grant from the Meadows Foundation. So we did at one time have about 53 thousand dollars. We haven’t had much since, little grant from the county and then a little grant from the city. After that, right now, we’ve got really nothing except donations coming in from members. But yeah that—that—seeing that image over there sort of triggered getting that course going, it triggered getting the organization and let’s see. You got a leading question that would be useful right now?
DT: Well, the course and the organization that you put together, what sort of problems did both of those identify about the river? I think you’ve mentioned some of the toxic and sewage outfalls that you were finding. There was a flooding problem, a dredging and filling problem, I guess, related to the flooding. What other problems were you seeing that were affecting the river and what sort of programs did you try to undertake?
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JE: Yeah. See I—I can’t really say when we first started that that we understood exactly the implications of all these things that were going on in tribu—well, we obviously knew that the warehouses being close to the river and the tributaries was not good, right? But then the more we got to looking around and we see the kind of actions that are taking place, like the—the—the dredging and diversions of the streams and so on and the gouging out the streams, how that is affecting the—the quality of water in the river and probably quantity. Because okay, the—the erosion down by the river itself
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where the Border Patrol Road is. The d—the dredging—I mean, the—the com—the construction of that Border Patrol Road by the Army Engineers in 1998, the spring of 1998, greatly destabilized the bank. That’s river silt, highly erodable. Now down by the Channel 13 tower is a city storm drain, quite a ways from the river itself, quite a ways from the water and where that storm drain comes out, it digs out, you know, a little arroyo. But below that, the terrain sort of flattens out into a grassy brush covered area and the water spreads into a wide sheet flow, then it flows into the river. So the water was pretty much clean and the flow reduced and there was no erosion to speak of going to the river. But when they came in—when the engineers came in and—and—and dozed that road, what happened then was this water came down the sheet flow, when it hit the
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road, it turned downhill. It turned downhill and began to erode that road. And within—okay, they cut that road in 1998—spring of 1998, we had a lawsuit going to try to stop it. They did it anyway. This is another thing that bothered me in democracy. When we were in court, I remember we had—I think we had some good attorneys—attorneys you probably know one of them there in Austin. Can’t call his name right now, but the attorneys made the case and the—and the federal judge says well, you’re right. The Corps of Engineers has not satisfied all the requirements of the environmental assessment, but they say they’re going to. And besides that, the President and the
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Congress want this road. And so I’m thinking in my mind, you know, where is local opinions in American democracy? I couldn’t say—you know, I was—I was rather bothered by that—that whole episode. But anyway, they went ahead with the road. When the road was finished, I got on a bus with the mayor, with the head of the Border Patrol sector here and a number of people and we rode around the road down by the river. That was in the spring of 1998 and okay. So that happened. Now in the fall of 1998, we had a flood. One of the tropical storms stalled out up by Del Rio, let out a lot of rain. Joe
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McCaddy and—Carey and one of our other friends and I had just come from a junket around Chihuahua, Mexico. We had gone around those head—those headwaters in Mexico, the headwaters of the Rio Grande there and we had seen this—the lakes up there that were just—practically no water in them. It was very dry. The Conches River, as we—we came down was a—just a trickle. Looked like a creek. But when we got to—
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when we got north of Del Rio to the Seminole Canyon State Park, we stopped in because I wanted the guys—hey, Joe, I want you guys to see this park. Well, we saw the sign on the road, well, we’re closed because of flooding. And I said ah, these guys just want to take off. But anyway, we drove on toward Del Rio and when we got there and we—when we crossed San Felipe Creek, which is coming from the San Felipe Springs, which is the public water supply for Del Rio, we crossed over the creek and wow, it was flooding like crazy and we could see that it was wiping out houses and all this kind of
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stuff. And you know, I mean, there were loss—there was loss of life there, loss of livestock and so on. And I said okay, in three days, we’ll see it. And of course, we came back to Laredo and sure enough, three days—that’s about how long it takes water to get from Del Rio to Laredo—in three days, the flood stage hit in—in Laredo. The Border Patrol Road was completely covered—well, not—not the whole Border Road covered, but most of the Border Patrol Road was covered. I remember there was a little stretch down below just west of the college that we got down there and walked and we could see
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all these rafts of Carrizo coming down, you know. And of course, there were bodies of animals and stuff washing down through there. After the flood subsided, we went down to the—the road south of the college and, of course, it was annihilated because what had happened when they built the road around, that’s a—that’s almost a right angle turn, that bend of the river downtown. When they built that road around there, they, in effect, built a dyke. They built a dam. And when the water was coming down the river, as it
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reached flood stage, it began to cross it. In other words, it went across the—the shortest distance. The hypotenuse of a right angle, right? And—and went across and hit that dam and just broadsided and wiped it out. So that—right after the flood, we went down there with the news and, of course, I hated to see what had happened, but it was kind of hard to keep this, you know, the I told you so look off my face, I guess because, you know, here it was, within a matter of months, after we had predicted what had happened. And I think that gave us the—gave us some credibility with the community, too, at that time
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because we had—actually it was worse than what we had thought it would be because we hadn’t really expected that much rain. We knew it was going to erode, but I mean, sometimes I pray for rain, you know, and if you’re going to do it anyway, well, let’s—let’s put it to the test, right? And it was put to the test and it failed. Now here’s the interesting thing. Since it failed the first time, the Corps eventually came back in and sort of rerouted. Did it a little bit differently. And it washed out again. There’s been another—well, not as bad as the ’98 flood, but another flood washed that work out. Another place further upstream, which is a very good place—if you want to do some
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photography, that’s a good place to look at erosion on the river by the Channel 13 tower. The Corps fixed it, I believe, twice and then a—a little over a year ago, I had my STEER students down there and the city was repairing it. And then in a month or so, I had my STEER students down there after a rain and it was gone again. Now whether they’re going to get it through their heads eventually that you can’t build a road, I don’t know. I have said that over and over. You cannot maintain a road down there. So now they’ve put in four wheel—they put in a little four-wheel buggies right at the—what do you call them, the power—the little four wheeled vehicles.
DT: Four wheelers?
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JE: Four wheelers down there and they’re running all over the place and, of course, that is destabilizing as well. So here—and—and I’ve made this statement probably many times before, that I think making a river an international border is—is one of the worst things…
[Cell phone ringing]
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JE: One of the worst things that can be done to a river…
DT: When we broke off, we were talking about the construction of the Border Patrol Road and—and some of the problems from flooding and essentially a dyke being created and then breaking loose and causing the collapse of the bank of the Rio Grande. And I think you made an interesting comment that—that one of the worst curses that a river can have is to be an international boundary and it seems to me that there are a number of plans that might have existed for the river, you know, whether it’s being used as a sort of fortified and monitored zone or being used as a hike and bike trail, which I think you worked for. Or as a river corridor for wildlife and because it’s this international boundary, all those plans may come to naught because there’s this loophole in the jurisdictions and I was hoping you could help us understand some of the problems of it being not only a river, but also a boundary.
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JE: Yeah, okay, one of the problems and—and I’m thinking about this wildlife corridor you mentioned. One of the problems is that on this side of the river, we have private ownership of the land. In other words, the US Government owns the water and apportions the water. But the land under the water is owned by—well, it could be owned—it could be owned by the government. I know the gov—the federal government’s buying some further upriver, buying some for park space and so on. But right here, you have strips of land. I’ve looked at some of those surveys and there’re
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strips of land running down to mid river and individuals own that land. That means if they were—if you were to go down and find oil or gas under the river, that would go to whoever owns that—that property. You know, they might slant drill or something there to get that. So that means that individuals have control of that. And then also the city, like Laredo, has control of—of that vega. Now the River Drive Mall ha—ha—a mall has been built right down in the flood plain. The parking lot is right in the flood plain and
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where you should have vegetation for a wildlife corridor is covered over by pavement for parking. And then also, next to that was the government parking lot by Bridge One. Now I believe the city has also been granted that piece of property, but it’s still covered over by pavement and parking lot. You do have a little stretch of Carrizo next to the river and I assume that some animals, you know, of certain stripes might make it up through that. Unfortunately, we do not have the protection that is down in the lower valley because they’re concerned about ocelots, right, and jaguars, the cats and so on and so
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they have built bridges down there with that idea in mind so that—that animals can still migrate through that. Laredo, Texas is not constructed very well that way. And also certain individuals—individual landowners have pretty much wiped out a lot of the vegetation all the way down to the river because they want to go down and have a place to launch boats, for example. So yeah, that’s a problem. We would—we are an international border, which I think is a terrible thing for the river and I’m going to explain that. One good thing on the Mexican side is that—that the federal government owns the
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vega. If we had that here and we’d control it and they had it and controlled it, we could have a—a much better controlled river. Now why do I say it’s a terrible curse to have it as an international border? Now that way I’d like to move up and look at a specific example in El Paso. This is where the international border along the river begins and if you recall, El (?), which El (?), this is—dealt with a piece of land that was changed by the changing course of the river that had been, I believe, in Mexico but then the river
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changed its course and it was now in the US. And there was a big battle because there were—there were structures down there on that, obviously built in the flood plain. But there were structures on it and then there was an argument between the Mexican and the US Government about whose property that was. And finally, I believe, the US ceded that property to Mexico. Now because of that conflict, the International Boundary and Water Commission channeled the stream. If you go to El Paso right now and you look at the river, it’s a concrete channel and down through the Big Bend in places, this has been
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channeled to keep the river from migrating. A river migrates. If you have a bend in the river, for example, a meander, over long periods of time, that meander may migrate. And so in order—it—by—by making the river the political border between two nations, now you got to make it stay put and that creates all of this channeling and concreting and so on. And El Paso is a—just an excellent place to see that negative aspect. The fact that the river changes—I was talking to somebody here a while back who’s studying that. They’re going back in geological time. I mean, this river has tremendous meanders all
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through it extending a long way from where the river is now. I saw just a little bit of that in a study that someone was doing. And of course, the whole area at one time—or—or in fact, more than one time, was covered by the sea and you can find oyster beds and so on. Some of these things show up, you know, by the erosion taking place in the creeks here in town. So okay, there’s—there’s one example of having problems with it—with having the—the river as a border. Another problem would be this. The ’94 and ’97 studies that I
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mentioned earlier. Of course, this was back before they started putting a lot of this stuff online and then we had trouble. I mean, the—okay, so the work was done for the ’94 study probably in ’92 or ’93 and I’ve forgotten when we finally got the study, it may be more like ’95 because we couldn’t even get at the data because there was this problem between the International Boundary and Water Commission here and SELA, the corresponding group across. So that creates, you know, some political tension. So—so that’s another problem. But I’d say the biggest—the biggest hindrance would be this—
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this problem of just messing up the stream channel. That’s the thing that bothers me, right now, worse about it. I’m sure there are other issues in—in dealing with that.
DT: Well, one issue that comes to mind that maybe heightens this difference between the north side of the river and the south side of the river is that there are water claims on the Rio Grande that are always brought into high relief whenever there’s a drought, which is pretty frequently. And I was hoping that you could talk about the different claims on the river and how the river, I guess, three or four years ago actually ran dry before it could go across the Bolsa Chica and into the Gulf of Mexico.
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JE: Yeah, I would love to do that. In fact, one of the issues that I’m working on right now that ties in with that. I’ve been trying to get this message across to our local political leaders because they keep riding the political hobbyhorse of saying hey; we’ve got to have a secondary water source. We’re going to have raise our—our water rates in the city so we’ll have this money to go to the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in northwest Webb County. My opinion is after these, what, 15 years or so of studying this, the Rio Grande provided water for this area for 250 years and, if properly managed, in my opinion, can provide it for another 250 years. If properly managed, that’s the key—that’s the key
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point—properly managed because right now, 85 gallons out of every 100 gallons of water that is taken from the river goes for agricultural irrigation. Agricultural irrigation along the Rio Grande is a highly wasteful process. The delivery systems to the fields or orchards for irrigation are very leaky. Some of them are uncovered and so there’s chance for evaporation, there’s a chance for water seeping into the subsoil. And then the irrigation practices themselves. Sometimes they flood a whole orchard. Now you put a foot of water out there and—or the fields. It has been shown by technology such as drip irrigation and, in fact, when Jim Hightower was agricultural commissioner of the State of
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Texas, we had on the Laredo Community College campus the Texas Israeli Exchange Forum. We had a group of people at the college from Israel and, in fact, they raised various crops using drip irrigation. The drip irrigation was controlled by computers. It was computerized irrigation. This is back in 80’s, I guess. Drip irrigation—and—and the Israeli experience has shown that you can—depending upon the different kinds of crops, you can save probably anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the water by irrigation
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techniques. And I think that doesn’t even count what’s lost in the delivery systems. So I think we could save far more than half of the water that’s being taken from the river. Now that means 85 percent out of every 100 gallons goes for irrigation—for agricultural irrigation. So that means that cities such as Laredo and other cities along the river are taking their water out of the other 15 gallons. Now if we could work with—if cities could work with the irrigators and somehow provide—help provide the financial backing, basically purchase water from those irrigators so that they could put in modern water
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conserving deli—delivery and irrigation technologies, they could save a tremendous amount of water. I mean, just think, if you’re going—if you got 85 percent, you save 10 percent of that, you saved almost as much as you’re—you’re using from municipalities. And if you save twice that, you’re over—you’ll have over twice as much as what you’re—what you’re using for cities right now. So what has to happen—this is what I’m trying to get the local politicians to see because they sort of have their head in the sand. They’re saying oh, we can’t deal with the people down in the lower valley. Too many of them—no, no, no. That’s not the gu—that’s the whole reason that we should be dealing
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with them because there are so many and they’re using so much water. We need to be at the table with them. I went to a water summit down in—down in lower valley here in the fall. I saw one person from the City of Laredo who was an underling, nobody at the top level that could be negotiating. I didn’t see anybody from the county. We need to be negotiating with those folks. Now what we need to negotiate with them then, we need to
get our representatives in the legislature to get involved and it’s going to take the passage of one or more bills to get that kind of interaction going so that—that cities—I mean, a—a gallon of water is worth a whole lot more in the city than it is in agriculture. You stop and think about that, I mean, you know, a—a gallon of water to coming into a doctor’s office can bring a lot more money than a gallon of water going to irrigate a crop.
DT: You were talking about the overuse of agricultural water.
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JE: Right. If—if by saving, you know, 10 or 20 percent of the water that’s used for agriculture inter—irrigation would double—more than double the amount of water that’s being used in the—by municipalities right now, right now. And you could save probably 40 percent or maybe 50 percent with time. And you could have room for tremendous amount of municipal growth by saving the agricultural water. That would be the—that’s the biggest area to save, but there’s another important area for saving, we’re also trying to get our local politicians to see this. This would also—needs involvement of the
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legislature. It needs involvement of the representatives in legislature. And that would be to give the—to allow cities like Laredo to bank water that is saved through conservation. Right now, the City of Laredo, based on usage, has a 200-gallon per capita usage per day. For each citizen, one—two hundred gallons of water are used per day. San Antonio is
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like, the last I heard, 147. Years ago, San Antonio was using 213 gallons per day. Some of our politicians have said in the past, oh well, yeah, we can’t save water like San Antonio because if we save it, then we just lose it. We don’t have a place to store it. They’ve got the Edwards Aquifer. I’m not sure how sound an argument that is, but to—just to satisfy that argument, that’s why we need to be interacting with our representatives in the legislature. We need a bill in the legislature that would say municipalities along the Rio Grande who under—who develop a water conservation program and save water
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will be able to bank that water for future use. And that water for us is stored in Amistad Reservoir. And true, we’re talking about a water bank account that is very—it’s not like your, maybe your checking account at a regular bank because it is subject to climatic change—or climatic conditions. It’s subject to drought and a lot of rainfall and so on. And so the balance—your balance might fluctuate from year to year. So it would have to be done on some kind of percentage basis. You save so much, now when the times get lean, you can—you’ll—you’ll eith—least you’ll have a certain percentage out of what’s
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left there. Or maybe times are not getting so lean, maybe you’re growing. You expand a lot and you need a lot more water. Then you could draw more water—you could start drawing more water against what you’ve saved, what you’ve banked. We need that kind of thing and then, you know, the incentives will be there for the city to conserve. A few years ago when Fernando Romano, I mention his name because he’s a guy I really respected here who ran the water treatment plant. He was head of the water treatment
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facilities here in Laredo. In one of the previous droughts, he implemented a water savings program and reduced—very significantly reduced the amount of water that was used for watering lawns and so on in the summer. When the council looked at that, they said wow, you know, we got a million dollars less this time than we normally get. We can’t have this. We can’t have water conservation. That’s the kind of mentality that we need to get rid of.
DT: Well, it’s interesting. You’re talking about changing mentalities through water conservation and water banking and then some mentalities, it sounds like, of your local politicians and your state legislators. And I’m curious if you could talk about that same effort to change people’s minds in the context of your own life, where recently you’ve resigned from being the Executive Director of the Rio Grande International Study Center to be a private citizen acting more as a lobbyist and an advocate in the public governmental realm. Can you talk about that change in your own life and maybe give some examples of some of these political actions that you’ve undertaken?
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JE: I’d be happy to. In fact, at a town meeting a couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to the candidates for state representatives from here, Richard Raymond, Mercurial Martinez, I believe, Mister Mora and Mister Cantu, I think. But anyway, I was talking specifically, I asked—I asked—I had the opportunity publicly to ask Candidate Martinez if he would introduce and/or support a bill just as I’ve described to you. And—and of
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course, he said yes before the group at that time, so I’ve got him on record as saying that he would. Mister Raymond, I did not catch him in public, but I asked him outside and he agr—he agreed to the same thing. Yes, he would look at that. So those are the kinds of things I’m doing and—and—and just—just today, before coming here, I’d written a letter of endorsement for one of the candidates for county—county judge, in which I pretty much outlined the essence of what I’ve just talked about here. N—not that the candidate I’m endorsing has embraced that yet, but that candidate is at least above the rest in
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general as far as, I think, preparedness, as far as a general bent toward having a better environment and a better quality of life. And I’m hoping to influence this person that way and, in fact, in the endorsement, I have included this and then I’m including why I’m endorsing her. And I’m not saying she’s not agreeing with that, but I’m not saying that she is agreeing with that. I’m putting that all in the same email which will go to hundreds of people on my email list. And I don’t know if it—well, I think—I think the LareDOS would pick it up, but I don’t think there’s time. I think that issue will be coming out—it’s
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only a monthly. Whether the Times will pick that up, I don’t know. I would hope so. But at least a lot of people are going to get that message, including the candidates because I want to make sure that they—that—that—that the candidates get it.
DT: Where does this effort to be a sort of private ombudsman, a kind of proponent of better government—you mentioned the LareDOS and the Laredo Morning Times and I’m curious how sympathetic the media has been and how much of a partner or an opponent local newspapers and journals have been to environmental concerns that you’ve had?
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JE: We’ve had—actually both of them have been very good. Over the years, I’ve cultivated reporters and we’ve had some very good ones. We’ve got one right now with the Times, Tri—Tricia Cortez, west side of San Antonio. She grew up with a—a degree from—back in the Northeast. But she has done an excellent job. She’s—she’s—she’s been sort of heavy ammunition sometimes on some of the projects that we were working on. And then of course, the Laredo Times—the—the LareDOS had been with us all along. I mean, Meg—the monthly paper, I wish it were weekly, at least. I mean, it’s
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clearly in our camp. And I think—and I consider it coming down on the side of the citizens. And people have a pretty time—hard time arguing with that because I don’t make any money out of this. And that’s kind of hard—that’s been hard for some people in Laredo to understand. They don’t quite understand somebody who would spend this much time and effort if you’re not making something out of it financially. And, you know, but it—it has to do with that east—east Texas upbringing I had at Hawkins. Goes back—it goes back to the scouting, to the school, to the Sunday school. All those where you were taught, you know, it’s kind of important how you live your life. It all goes back to that. Now the—several years ago, the—few years back, the—I was surprised when the paper, they named me, I think, Laredoan of the Year, or something like that. That was—
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that really was kind of a surprise when I got that. But—like I say, they have been good to present things and very often, just like on this—I had the two part series on the—on this water conservation, which they published a few years back. I’ll have to admit here, you know, there is some tension sometimes. And I think it’s kind of understandable. Here a while back on one particular issue involving the Springfield Avenue extension between Del Mar Boulevard and International Boulevard, which has been pushed by certain individuals in the community and Councilman Gene Belmares, who is councilman over
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there right now, is continuing to push that, although he inherited the problem and I tried to talk with him, hey, you inherited this problem, you shouldn’t stick with it. But he has and he claims, you know, no, that will not violate the Green Space ordinance and it won’t violate the subdivision ordinance and I, of course, have contested him publicly saying they will. I’m convinced it will. I helped write the Green Space ordinance so pretty much know what’s there and I know what roughly they’re—they’re planning to do out there because they have at least a—have drawn a rough map of that even though they have never actually hired an engineer, you know, to—to look at the situation. And I lost my train of thought. I was the—trying to build.
DT: We were talking about the media and before that being a government proponent.
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JE: Yes. Okay. In this particular situation and Tricia wrote some good articles concerning Springfield, but you know, suddenly it seemed like it was a little—I had experienced more difficulty getting in the paper than I had before on the Springfield Avenue extension. Well, course, a lot of your companies that are dealing in that business are heavy advertisers with the paper and so I’m sure that puts a little pressure on them. For example, the councilman—the councilman, Belmares, is I think the Chief Sales Agent for Westland Builders. And you know, I’ve—I’ve just sort of felt like that—it helped create a—you know, let’s err on the side of caution. You know, maybe Earhart’s
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wrong on this. And it’s a little bit more difficult, I—I just felt a little friction, I felt a little resistance that I had not felt before in getting in the paper. Then LareDOS—Meg Gettes at LareDOS, wrote a pretty scorching editorial concerning flooding over on Candlewood Road. This is kind of in the same vicinity of the Springfield Avenue extension and the development that’s taken place up there has been con—considerably responsible at least for part of that flooding of those homes on Candlewood Road, down close to Mary Help of Christian School. And when Meg wrote that scorching editorial involving the
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councilman, I think it was the next day or shortly thereafter, she got a notice or a call or something from Westland Homes that they were canceling their 625 dollar a month ad that they had had with LareDOS for the last three years. Pretty obviously deck—direct response, right? So I think when you have the small town papers and you’re talking about issues in the community, I think that’s probably a factor. Why, it’s obviously a factor in the case of LareDOS. And like I say, I felt a little resistance in getting things in the paper otherwise, and maybe some of the other folks did in trying to write letters to the editor.
DT: Do you feel any resistance or conflict in your own mind between being a scientist on the one side, somebody who’s trained to be objective and sort of a middle of the road questioner for the truth. And then on the other hand, being an advocate where it’s more partisan and you’re trying to push a particular view of how things should be.
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JE: Yeah. Yeah, that’s been a—a very definitely a factor in my—in my life and in my professional life and in my interest of what’s going on in the community. I mean, I like the idea of being a very reserved, clear thinking scientist who thinks through problems and maybe in the ivory tower, makes pronouncements that come from careful thought and so on. And I still believe that I spend time thinking—I—I spend many hours sometimes toiling over an idea that I want to come up with before I ever say it publicly. I do that. And I think that a lot of people in science and a lot of educators just sort of shy
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away from confrontation. Confrontation is not fun. Yesterday is an excellent example of that. When you got people you know wish you were gone somewhere. It’s not fun and yet, at seventy years—well, before seventy—I’m seventy as of December, but before that, I realized hey, that’s okay. I mean, you want good, logical, clear thinking and I wish the whole world was that way. If it were, we wouldn’t be having the problems that we’re having. But we don’t have that. And people listen to clips. I mean, not very many people will ever know about much of this conservation today because they will not take
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the time no matter where it’s put. What they listen to, if anything, would be little sound bytes of information or clips or things they pick up here unless something is bothering them very specifically right then. So they don’t spend—they will not spend the time to do that. So what I realize then in dealing with this public, that I have to get to the point what I want to say and it has—it’s got to be something that stimulates them and I think what I’m observing—and I hate to say this because growing up as a Christian, I know that love is the most important thing—but what I see out here in reality, that fear is a very
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strong motivator. If I can make somebody understand that, look, if we don’t have good, proper inspection of our water facilities, our plumbing and so on, and we get cross connections and we get backflow of toxic material, you might end up with giardia infection or you might conceivably end up dead. You could—somehow people need to understand that. Well, that’s fear, I think. That seems to be fear, but I think that’s the kind of thing that tends to motivate people. And I don’t want to do—I don’t want—I don’t want to be a fear monger. I don’t want to get into the point of you’re just trying to shake people up all the time, but if it’s the truth, then I think it needs to be said clearly,
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succinctly and directly and make people understand what you’re talking about. This is a distinct possibility. So I don’t know. If that—you know, I think—but I think scientists have probably done that for a long time. I think—I think Einstein did that concerning the E=MC2. I mean, here he came up with this stuff, but he realized the problems and he made that known to Roosevelt. And I don’t know. Yeah, you can think but you can make people aware of things. I—I don’t know if this exactly fits, but I think of Feinman there, you know, of kind of feeling of that—that gasket…
DT: The O-ring.
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JE: That O-ring on the Challenger and stuff. I mean, sometimes you just got to say here it is. Like it or not.
[End of Reel 2367]
DT: I’d like to follow up on a little discussion we had before. You were talking about the tension between being a scientist and an advocate and I thought I’d ask you, you were placed on a number of ordinance writing and study committees by the city council here in Laredo, I think one that came up with the Green Space ordinance.
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DT: And I guess selected for that because of your technical expertise, but perhaps your advocacy got to be too strong or—I’m just speculating here—and some of your recommendations to the committee were ignored or not enforced and eventually you decided to resign from those committees. I was wondering if you could talk about being on the inside of a committee and, you know, enabled and empowered in a sense and then being on the outside of a committee, maybe having more latitude and flexibility to try and press this same cause.
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JE: Yeah, I—I’ve—I’ve grappled with that question. In fact, I’ve even had people approach me and say why don’t you run for public office? And I—I gave that very serious consideration. And maybe I’ve been here long enough and—that—that could be a possibility and the fact that I have a daughter-in-law who is local, Hispanic. And I think I’ve been here long enough that maybe I’m in from the social stand—maybe. Maybe—I’m totally sure about that. But even if that’s the case, I got to thinking, you know, I think I can get more done as an advocate on the outside rather than tying down to any particular office because of my personality, whatever job I’m working on, it usually
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consumes all of my time. I think if I were a councilman, it would consume a tremendous amount of my time just doing—making sure I had that job done. I think. So it’s my impression that I can probably get more done outside by raising issues, but it goes further than that now. I said it’s got to be more than that. Okay, I don’t run for office, I’m working on it, but I’ve got to work to get people in office of like minds. And that’s what we’ve been doing this time in 2006, trying to get candidates in office who do care about these issues that I’ve been talking about this afternoon. One of the things that I have
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found and, you know, I—I find that there are—that some of the candidates actually seek me out, asking for an endorsement, so I guess I’m making some impact if they—if I have some of them asking that. Now getting them to say the right things and to do the things after they’re there, and that’s one of the things—before I endorse anybody right now, I want to hear their views and I want them to publicly state their views. And we did this, for example, we got our first candidate out in District 7 and Doctor Antonini who is a dermatologist here in town and I are part of a little group called Alliance for Fairness to
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All Citizens. It’s a PAC group, which is not a very big group. But he and I endorsed the gentleman out in District 7, but with the endorsement were the platform planks. So it’s in public. And then we expanded on that in emails that were sent out to—hundreds of email contacts that I’ve got. So we’re—we’re trying to work it that way. We’ve—we’ve got to get like-minded people. And then running for Council District 6 is Doctor Alfonso Martinez who took my place. He’s—he’s medically trained in Mexico and has worked
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for the health department. So he—he took my pl—he took my place in teaching anatomy and physiology at Laredo Community College about six years ago. So he’s—he’s gotten pretty active and is running there and we spend a lot of time talking with each other on these issues. And so that’s sort of the approach this political activism is taking. I don’t think I’ll ever run for any kind of office, but I hope to continue to work in these areas. And if we’re successful, if we’re successful in getting these candidates into office, then I guess I will feel compelled to spend more time in Laredo. I don’t know which—who was
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the prophet who put out the fleece, testing God, you know. On the dry night, I’m going to put out the fleece. If it comes up wet, I’ll take that as a positive statement. On a wet night, I’ll put out the fleece. If it comes out dry in the morning and everything’s wet around it, I’ll take—I guess the 2006 council election’s kind of my fleece right now. If we win those, I don’t see how I can leave. If we don’t win them, maybe I’ll decide that the people of Laredo don’t want this and I may do more train traveling and be gone a lot. And that—that’s not—I don’t say—that’s not in a—a negative sense, I think it’s just kind
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of looking at the facts, right because you can only do so much and you have enough people who are going along with you, then a lot of these things can be done. Well, that’s how we got the Green Sp—that’s how we got the Green Space ordinance. I mean, we had a tremendous number of people, highly popular ordinance. People want this kind of stuff. They want to back up against a stream, if possible, with green space. They want to be able to where they can walk to a park, they want that. Yet, we had a very few people
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holding it up. It took at least two and half years to get it done. And so, yeah, the—I know that there are a lot of—and that’s what holds me in Laredo because I believe there is that group—significant group of people who do want a decent situation and I’d like to try to work to help them, help them get it if possible. But again, you know, we’ll see what happens. It’s always—it’s—that’s what makes life interesting. That’s why it’s still interesting at 70, because you—you don’t know what’s coming up tomorrow.
DT: You know, it seems like you’ve made efforts in lots of directions, whether it’s working at the community college or the Rio Grande International Study Center or in the political realm to educate people and try and make them—as you said earlier—to pay attention and see things as they truly are. I’m curious though, if you were having a conversation with the future, with a younger generation, what sort of message would you want to pass on to them as to what’s important about science, the natural world, about conservation, other things you care about?
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JE: I guess I’d do what I actually do a lot of times and ask them, do you like green space? Do you like it? And when I ask that question, I think almost invariably the answer is yes. Do you like to see the streams channeled and concreted or mud flowing th—almost, I think, the universal answer is no because I ask those questions. I think that’s one of the starting points, what do you really want in life? Do you want a good quality of life? Do you want a healthful life? Do you want—you know, what do you
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want? I think that’s what everybody has to decide. And then, if you want those things, now what are you going to do to get them? Are you willing to work because it takes effort? You cannot have these things if you don’t work for them. If you just lay around and wait for somebody else to do them, you’re not going to get them. You’re not going to get them. And—and I always have to bring in this thing because, you know, I’m proud of—of my ancestors and, I mean, they were farmers and when they went to the military, they were dog faces. They weren’t, you know, big military leaders, but they served and
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died. And I think a lot of people, you know, have died in the past so that we can have the opportunities that we can have, so that we can have the wealth that we have. And I realize that a lot of people are still suffering, but there’s an awful lot of wealth. And there’s a lot of technology. And my question to the student or to anybody else, you know, do you—do—what do you—do you really want a good life? Are you willing to put out the effort to get it? Are you willing to—to—to read and to think and to volunteer? I mean, volunteering’s not a bad word. Sometimes in Laredo, sometimes I think people don’t understand the strong volunteerism. Why would you do it if you’re
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not—it’s always—the question is always what are you getting out of this? And I think it’s probably a valid question, what are you getting out—if you work and you volunteer and everybody works a little bit, then you’re going to get a more decent life. You’re going to have a better quality of life. You’re going to have some green spaces. Get rid of laziness and fight the greed that’s in you and I know it’s in you because it’s in me. I
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know about greed. We want to get the things that we want. And I’m a businessman to some extent. Not a rich one, but I’ve made enough that in retirement, I’m still not—you know, I don’t—I can gun—I do what I’m doing right now because I choose to do it and I can do that because, you know, I’ve made fairly good business decisions through my life. And I guess those are the kinds of things that I want to get across to kids or to anybody. Be positive, be positive. Put out efforts. Don’t be like the former student I’ve got who’s in a place that floods and yeah, he would like to have something better, but when I say
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hey, let’s get—we’re going to have a meeting, we’re going to have a little town hall meeting to try to see what we can do about this. And he says oh, I’ve got to—I’ve got some things, I’ve got to do something that day. I can’t come. And not, you know, give me another alternative of times. Or another lady whose house floods and whether—I can’t get her involved in a meeting, but she would, on a moment, satisfy her, I guess, need to vent herself by cursing out the city manager when he comes out by her house. I would like to avoid those kind of things. Let’s be positive. You’ve got to work, you
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can’t get it all in one day. Think of Europe in which some of these—like the—like Cologne over there, some of these big cathedrals, I mean, were—it took them, what, 600 years to build some of those? I mean, you had to have people who cared about the future. They started this work knowing they’re never going to see it done. Now I don’t know, I think you can stimulate some pe—I think we can stimulate some people that way and I hope we can stimulate a lot of people that way because if we don’t, the future is pretty
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dim. The Texas Water Development Board Region—I believe, Region M. That’s our region with the counties along here, including Webb all the way down to Willacy and those down by the Gulf, just came out with a 50 year report for the Rio Grande. And they say basically what I’ve been saying. If we don’t get busy and conserve water, if we don’t treat the river right, the situation is going to be dire a whole lot sooner than 50 years. It’s going to be dire. So I’d say that thing about the whole world. I mean, the people in—in Churchill up there are concerned about the loss of glaciers and the loss of
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ice and their polar bears, that’s their main industry. I think people are concerned about that all over and we—if we do not become active individually and enough of us collectively, then we’re in a world of hurt. I mean, I—I believe, for example, I can’t—I don’t know all the ins and outs of global warming, but as a biologist, even, being out here and seeing the—the—the Parco mines out on the Mines Road, seeing that seam of coal that they’re digging out. It’s hard for me to imagine all over this world that we pull out all those seams of coal, those fossil fuels and the oil and the gas and so on and we burn
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those things and put—put the products of those—of that burning back into the atmosphere, that it—that we’re not regressing to that primitive atmosphere that’s proposed in primordial Earth. And if we move back that direction, that has got to be affecting what’s going on. I mean, even though I—I might not lay it out line by line, global warming makes a—I mean, it’s hard for me to see how you wouldn’t have some kind of effect like that, at least to some extent over a period of time—even layered over the natural cycles that have occurred throughout geologic time.
DT: What do you think the biggest challenge might be that’s facing us? Is it people’s attitudes or some of their faults, you know, greed, ignorance, like you said earlier? Or is it somewhat natural phenomena that are affected by people, like climate change? Or is it some combination of the two?
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JE: Probably a combination, I would—I would think because you—I mean, you have these natural cycles that have occurred. I mean, the world at one time had a beginning. The world sometime will have an end. Now a lot of people would say well, you know, what good does it do? I mean, and why should we wor—be worried about that? Why should we worry about all of these problems? Why should we worry about water quality? What you worry about quantity, you know? And my question is well, why do you go to a doctor? Why do you go to a doctor? You know what? You’re going to die.
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I can guarantee you that you are going to die. Why go to a doctor? Well, I mean, obviously you go to a doctor because you want to improve the quality of your life and you want to extend it as far as possible. What else are we doing? What are we doing here when we’re dealing with the environment? We’re talking about not just our own bodies, but we’re talking about our progeny, we’re talking about our offspring. If we improve the situation, if we make it as good as possible, the best we’re going to do is extend this experience for a longer period of time. We may extend it for our own selves,
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if we take care of our own bodies properly and we can extend it for our progeny and for our species and for other species if we’re interested in that. But that’s the most I can see. It’s going to end sooner or later. Now what do we want? I think most of us, we stop and think about it, enjoy the experience. We enjoy the ride. And that’s what I would encourage folks to do is think about that. What kind of quality of life do you want while you’re living?
DT: Well, speaking of the experiences, for a lot of folks, really magical experiences are connected to a particular place—some spot that gives you feelings of joy or solace or something. Are there any that you could mention that mean something to you?
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JE: Yes. Actually, there are quite a number because as—as I’ve grown, the numbers of places have increased, right? First would be east Texas. Being at my grandmother’s house and—and my mother and I may be walking up the lane and it becoming night and you look off down to—I mean, it was dark at night. It was dark when I was like two—I can remember when I was two, for sure. When I was two, three years old, I remember it was dark at night. And I can remember looking off down the lane and seeing one little kerosene lamplight coming through a window. And being in those pine groves in east Texas, tall pines with the wind blowing through them where they moan. That’s a beautiful experience. But I can’t say that it’s any more beautiful than the feelings that I’ve—that I’ve had up the river. The Seminole Canyon State Park, going into those cliff
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dwellings. Looking at the whole lay of that desert up there. Fantastic feeling. I go to that—there’s one of the—the canyons—one of the caves that has a very white limestone interior and the phenomenon that I’ve never seen before or since anywhere else and that’s that curved sheet of rock that when you bang it, has a musical note. That’s the first rock I’ve ever seen with a musical note. To me, that’s a very calming place and I think wow. That would—I’d like to be living back in that time in a way. Now I’m sure, realistically, if I’m living back in that time, there would be a whole nother set of issues, another set of
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problems. We always have to deal with the problems, but we have to learn to enjoy them to some extent. That may sound a little morbid to some people, but I guess to some extent, you can enjoy—okay, you can have joy even though you may not be very happy at the time. You can have joy, I believe, without happiness. Happiness seems to me like something—yeah, I feel good right now and I feel pretty happy. Joy is knowing you’ve done the right thing in my way of thinking. So yeah, the east Texas, the piney woods, along the Rio Grande. Well, if I can enjoy myself anywhere. I’ve been on the Rio
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Grande here, it’s beautiful, but I think particularly up there in that direction, Seminole Canyon. I think parts of the Big Bend itself. Even the High Plains, out around Amarillo, when I was in the show “Texas” out there, riding my bike out and—and thinking about the whole area, thinking about the—the staked plains, the (inaudible) and the—and I used to like to—I was writing music—wrote some songs out there for the Canyon Centennial and the—fact, Renee Duran—Renee Duran, a friend of mine here, and I performed in that
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show out there. So we kind of, you know, it—all of that stuff is enjoyable. And then of course, this last August, I mean, going up to Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay really—there’s some neat places out there. And I’d like to see them stick around for awhile. You know, and—and I haven’t been to ANWR yet, the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. I’d like to go, but you know what? If I never go—if I never go, I’d like to see it be there so that my offspring can know it’s there and maybe they go, maybe they don’t. And I used to say the same thing about Alaska. Finally I got to go up the Inland Passage by ferry and went up Chilcoot Pass on that little narrow gauge railway. And there was a
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guy there and his dog. The guy was in—in the town there at the base of Chilcoot Pass, can’t say it right now, was quoting Robert Service poetry such is the Cremation of Sam McGee. You know, I—I love that stuff. I love Robert Service poetry. So I don’t know. You asked me place. There are a whole lot of places. There are a lot of places here in Texas. There are a lot of places throughout the United States, in Canada, Alas—all up and I enjoyed other places, too. My wife and I took a boat-bike trip in—in—well, we started over in Amsterdam and went through the Netherlands there and came back to our
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starting point, riding a bike in the day and then—and staying on the boat at night and so on, in the canals. Taking the—the Eurorail to Germany. And of course, if you go back to my Earhart ancestors, they would be—well, actually they were German from—but they were from the Swiss Canton in—German Canton in Switzerland. And my wife’s family, I guess, were from Hanover, places like that. And we were there, she looked at
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that—the—the—the German countryside and, you know, she said I could—I could live here and be happy. I mean, seeing the—going up the Rhine and—and the Mozul and—and seeing the—all the ruins and the—and the—the vineyards on the side of the hill, staying in the bed and breakfast and—and trying—sampling the—the fruit of the vine out there. All that’s fantastic. So I don’t know. It just—it goes on and I love the world, as you can see.
DT: Well, you’re lucky to have a long list of places that give you joy and I hope that you continue to travel around and see those and sometimes come back to Laredo and help things out here.
00:24:42 – 2368
JE: That—you know, okay, now you hit the—you hit the point right there. That’s the thing that gets me. I enjoy these things and I have—I’m not wealthy, but I have—at least I’m wealthy enough to have the opportunity to do some of those things, although I do them on a budget. But I would say that, I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, 80, 90 percent of the individuals living in this community and across never have the opportunity much of leaving the city limit. They are stuck here. They’ve got no ranchito to go to, the small ranch to go to. They’ve got no place (?); we destroy every green space in town. What have they got? Nothing. I’m thinking of one of the authors that I like to read. I can’t—can’t call his name right now, but…
DT: What does he say?
00:25:43 – 2368
JE: The article—the art—the—the—the book had—well, the Monkey Wrench Gang. What’s the m…?
DT: You mean, Abbey?
00:25:50 – 2368
JE: Yeah, Abbey. I like Abbey’s statement about being down in the lower valley and seeing the poor little women—I forgot if they were washing clothes or grinding grain or what—you know, with—and pregnant and with the kids and—and realizing here they are, down in the lower end, near the mouth of the Rio Grande in very squalid conditions and they would never have the opportunity to experience the beauty that he had experienced in the upper reaches of the Rio Grande and New Mexico and Colorado. And those are the kind of things that get me. I would like for everybody to have at least some opportunity to experience the beauty of all this.
DT: Well, maybe they can visit there, at least through your eyes and your memories. Thanks very much for your time.
00:26:46 – 2368
JE: I’ve greatly enjoyed it, David, thank you very much for the opportunity.
DT: Sure. You’re welcome.
End of Reel 2368
End of Interview with Jim Earhart