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Tom Vaughan

DATE: February 23, 2006
LOCATION: Laredo, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Jenny Gumpertz and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2364 and 2365

Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s February 23, 2006 and we are in Laredo and have the good fortune to be interviewing Doctor Tom Vaughan, who has a PhD in Zoology and has been focusing on Mammalogy for many years. And since 1980 has served as a teacher in Biology at Texas A & M International University and previously at the community college. And throughout has shown a strong interest in the Rio Grande and has been involved in the formation and operation at the Rio Grande International Study Center. I wanted to take this chance to thank you for spending time with us, to tell us about your life and some of your interest in conservation.
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TV: Thank you, glad…
DT: Maybe we could start with a question about your childhood and if there might have been some early experiences? Maybe some friends, relatives that could have introduced you to the outdoors, to interest in science.
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TV: Well, I grew up in New Mexico, in Southern New Mexico, out in the Chihuahuan Desert but fortunately we were near the mountains in Alamogordo so, it was not a long drive up into the mountains. And so, my—my parents and my siblings and I spent a lot of time up in the mountains looking at the—the wildlife and the vegetation up there. My parents had actually come from the eastern part of the state and so, we still had relatives that were farmers over in the eastern New Mexico and—and far west Texas. And in the summer times, I’d spend a lot of time out on the farm and that made me more and more interested in—in animals. We got to observe a lot of wildlife out on the farm. And so that was, you know, kind of the way I grew up being interested in—in the outdoors.
DT: Could you tell us about some of your trips to the mountains or maybe some of your visits to the farm?
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TV: Well, on the—out in the mountains we would go camping in the—you know, over the weekend. We—my dad had this big old canvas tent that we’d take up into the mountains and set up and spend the weekend, you know, walking through the trails and looking at butterflies and those kinds of things that, you know, got—got me really interested in not only the—the—the wildlife but just being outdoors. I’m an outdoor type person and then on the farm, my grandparents had a farm in Texas and, you know, we would go out there in the summertime and spend a couple of weeks with my—with my grandfather. He had cows and horses and other kinds of farm animals and really enjoyed being out on the farm.
DT: Did your father have any guide books or did he have any special knowledge about some of these butterflies?
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TV: No, I don’t—don’t really think so, you know. He had grown up on the farm and so, he knew a good deal about the outdoors but I think, you know, being in the mountains was kind of new to him as well because he had grown up out in eastern New Mexico, a long way from the mountains. And so, I think maybe that was one of the reasons we spent so much time in the mountains is because it was pretty new to the whole family and we explored together and learned about what was going out there together.
DT: What were some of the differences that you saw from being in the mountains versus the lowlands?
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TV: Well, in Alamogordo it’s, you know, in the Chihuahuan desert and lots of desert type vegetation. We’d also spent a lot of time out in the White Sands National Monument, which is about fifteen miles from—from town and we would go out there a good deal and be interested in—in the—the white lizards that were running around on the sand and just really—I was amazed that they had this sea of sand out there in the middle of—of the surroundings that were not white or sandy at all. And so, th—those were some of my early experiences that got me really interested in—in the outdoors and wildlife.
DT: As you grew up and went on to school, were there any teachers or maybe other students that shared your interest in the outdoors?
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TV: Well, I can—I can certainly remember by the middle school, what we call a junior high in those days, I had a teacher that—a science teacher—back in those days it was just science but he was a biologist by training and I think he was one of the people that really influenced me early on. And then in high school I really—I really thought I wanted to be a chemist. I had a—a teacher in—in high school and taught chemistry and—and I just really thought I wanted to be a chemist after having a chemistry class or two with him. But then I went off to—to college and the first semester I was in college, I took both
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general chemistry and general biology and after one semester I decided biology was the way I wanted to go rather than chemistry. So, I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. And so, I have an interest in both biology and chemistry as well.
DT: And then you went on to graduate school soon after college?
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TV: Well, after I—after I went to—went to college, I had a couple of mentors at—at the university that really influenced me. Doctor Sublet, who was an entomologist, he really had a big influence on—on some of the decisions I made and then Doctor Genero who was a Mammalogist that was at the university that I was attending. And those two really had a big influence on me. After—after graduating from the university, I—I thought at that time I—I had two—two things I was really considering and one was I was interested in joining the Peace Corps or going to graduate school. And after applying to the Peace
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Corps, I—I got accepted to the Peace Corps. I wanted to go to Latin America and they said “Well, we don’t have any openings in Latin America but we do have an opening in Somalia.” And I was more interested in graduate school at that time than I was in Somalia. And so, I went to the University of Arizona in the graduate program out there and studied under E. Lindle Cochram, a well known Mammalogist in Arizona and well—well known worldwide and spent a few years studying rodent populations out in the Sonoran Desert.
DT: And what was it you were trying to find out about these rodents in the Sonoran Desert?
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TV: Well, this was back in the days, there was something called the International Biological Program, a worldwide program trying to figure out if we alter the environment or change things this way, what effect will it have on the organisms out there. And my role in it was if we—if we remove woody vegetation, if we disturb the habitat in this way or the—or another, what re—what influence will that have on rodent population. So, I monitored rodent populations in southern Arizona for about three years looking—and those studies are ongoing actually. There have been people after me that have continued
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looking at those same rodent populations over the years and seeing how things have changed over time.
DT: And did you see any particular changes or know what kind of impacts you might expect if the woody vegetation changed?
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TV: Yeah, if we went out and for example, we removed the vegit—the woody vegetation and became more of a grassland and eventually, the succession would take over and eventually it’d be back to—to what it was before we removed the vegetation but certainly the kinds of rodents, the—the population, the density certainly changed with alteration of the environment in which they were found.
DT: And the reason that you were looking at that kind of alteration of removing woody vegetation was the thought that these semi-desert areas were going to revert to grassland or what was the thinking?
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TV: No, like I said it was a worldwide program and we were a small part of that. We were in the desert the people were studying grasslands and other parts of the country and other parts of the world. And so, ours—ours was a small part of this big program and we had computer model people that were generating com—computer models to try to figure out what the overall impact would be. And this—this kind of data has certainly become more important as we’re more and more convinced that climate change is a—a reality and is if climates change and vegetation distribution changes, certainly it’s going to have a big impact on wildlife and everything associated with it.
DT: Maybe you could just touch on what scientists, like yourself, expect as far as the climate is concerned and these sort of long term, large scale changes in the climate, what effect they might have on rodents or other animals?
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TV: Well, I think, you know, certainly it’s been my experience that rodent populations and the populations of other things certainly are not stable. And how you understand why they fluctuate they do, what the influences are is a very complex situation. I can just give you an example. I teach—I teach Mammalogy here at Texas A & M International University and I teach that class every two years. And I have students go out and make collections of the wildlife, of the mammals. Since most of the mammals are rodents,
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that’s the—the most common thing that we—we collect. There’s a species of rodent called Baiomys Taylori, it’s a very small mouse called a Southern Pygmy Mouse. The first time I taught Mammalogy several years ago, nobody collected a Baiomys. Two years later, it was one of the most common things that was being collected. Two years later nobody collected Baiomys. And so, I’m not sure how you explain that. This most recent semester, I taught the same course and a couple of students actually did trap and bring in these Baiomys. Now, I—I—would be something I would really be interested in
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knowing as why do they fluctuate like that from essentially as far as we could tell not—not present at all to super abundant. Now then as—as climate changes obviously, vegetational zones will shift and animals, the mammals in this case are certainly associated with the vegetation of the area. And so, I suspect that we will see major shifts in not only zones of vegetation but wildlife that inhabits that vegetation.
DT: Are there any signs of climate change that you’re seeing locally in the past twenty years?
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TV: Well, yeah, that’s a pretty short time frame to say anything about climate change. You got wet years, you got dry years, you got cold years, you got warm years. I mean a twenty year period is way too short to—to say anything significant about the—the climate but certainly we know that droughts come and droughts go. And one of things that we’ve experienced in the Rio Grande Watershed over pretty much most of the late ninety nineties into the early two-thousands was drought conditions, which has certainly affected the Rio Grande.
DT: Something else that interests me in your career is it seems you’ve spent a lot of time from the days of being a graduate student in the field. Can you tell me something about why you focused on field biology as opposed to, I guess, a lot of scientist do more of their work in the lab?
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TV: Well, I’ve done—I’ve done both. I’m really—I consider myself a field biologist. In addition to Mammalogy, I teach Ecology and to me, Ecology is done outdoors. And so, my students that take Ecology with me do outdoor field type work. The—when we—my—my wife is also a biologist and she and I spent three years in North Africa in Tunisia, back in the 1970’s. And we were looking at karyotypes in mammals which, you know, you collect the mammals and you look at their—their chromosomes. And so that was a lot of field work combined with lab work. But my—my love is the outdoors and
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the—the field work. I—I do some lab work today when I do water quality work on the Rio Grande. We’re looking at bacteria as well as organisms living in it and wa—and chemistry and so some of that involves some laboratory work as well.
DT: It’s intriguing that you’ve grown up in the desert around Alamogordo, gone to school at the University of Arizona and Desert Region, have worked in North Africa in another arid region and then have come to Laredo again—another low rainfall area. Have you learned something about what these different areas share in common and those differences that you see among those different desert areas?
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TV: Well, each—each desert is unique. They all share some common elements. Rainfall in—in the cases of the deserts we’re talking about, arid places but each one is unique. Each one has its own set of plants and animals. Some—sometimes those plants and animals are related to each other even though they’re very distant from each other. But the Arizona Sonoran Desert with the saguaro cacti and things like that is much different than the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico. And then the—the Sub Sahara in north Africa is even more different—a lot more sand there. Also, spent four
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years in Kuwait. There I studied mammals but also worked on some fish out on the mud flats and little fish called mudskippers that inhabit the mud flats when the tides go out. They’re out active on the surface of the—of the mud flats. So, I spent time looking at those as well, behavior and ecology of—of mudskippers. But I—the—the deserts, they’re all different in—in a lot of ways. For example, in—in Kuwait we consider that a pebble desert for the most part, you know, some sand but lots of pebbles on the surface and the—the—associated—one of—let me—let me say one other thing about deserts. Laredo, where I’ve been for the past twenty some years, is not actually a desert. We call it a semi arid region. We get about eighteen to twenty inches of rainfall on average so,
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we’re way to wet to be a desert but we do share some of the—the flora and the fauna with those—with the Chihuahuan Desert further to the—the west and to the south. But we’re not—we’re not truly a desert here. We do have some of the same mammals that occur all the way across the—the deserts to—to California that occur here but…
DT: I understand that Laredo finds itself in the Tamaulipan Region?
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TV: The Tom—Tamaulipan Biotic Providence, it’s called, uh huh.
DT: I’ve heard some people describe that as one of the most diverse eco regions anywhere and I was wondering is that so? And secondly why would it be so unusually diverse?
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TV: Well, the—the eco region itself, includes not only the—the Rio Grande Plain here but further south into Mexico, it becomes more diverse in terms of topography. And so, I think that would be one of the reasons of the—the diversity is because of the topography down to the south in Mexico. But the—one of the things that people are sometimes surprised to find out that deserts are very productive places in terms of the kinds of reptiles and—and mammals as well. My experience in Arizona would tell me that even thought there’s less rainfall in Arizona, in the southern part of the state where I was working, the biomass of rodents is higher, small mammals, rodents is much higher there than it is here in general. So—and th—the good diversity in—in all of the deserts, lots of different kinds of reptiles, lots of different kinds of mammals that make up the part of the vertebrate fauna.
DT: Well, since you’ve arrived in Laredo and started to teach and do research, can you maybe tell us about some of the focuses of your various courses, what kind of lessons you’re teaching and also what kind of research you—you’ve been doing over the last twenty six years?
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TV: Well, I consider myself to be a teacher that does a little bit of research. I am not—I certainly would not describe myself as being a researcher that has to teach. I—I enjoy working with students. And—so, that’s—that’s my main focus is—and not only working with students but get them interested in doing field work, get them out there in the field. I—I teach an ecology class every—every spring—every spring and as far as my students are concerned the lab is an outdoor lab. We rarely—we do some things in—in the lab depending on the project they choose to work on but they’re out there in the field, either
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wo—looking at the vegetation, some aspect of vegetation, some aspect of invertebrates, vertebrates, fish, mammals. But yeah, my main focus is—with the students is to—to hopefully give them of an appreciation of what’s going on out there in the natural world. And I do find that quite commonly they don’t—they don’t have much knowledge about
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the outdoors. They don’t have much knowledge about what’s going on around them. And so, that’s one of my—one of my goals is to—at least to introduce them to some of the possibilities. One of the things that I find very encouraging here at this institution in Laredo, is we just started a Master’s program in Biology. And I think we’re going to see a lot of our students that take their education a step further than—than they might have since we do have—have a master’s program. One of the—one of the things I tell my students, you know, I got a Bachelor’s degree in biology and it didn’t take me very long
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to figure out that a Bachelor’s degree is not worth very much. If you really want to do something in biology, you probably need to go at least to the master’s level and if possible, beyond that to the PhD level. And we’ve got a—we’ve got a group of students that are coming through now that seem to have gotten that message and they’re—they’re not thinking about well, I’ll get a bachelor’s degree and that’ll be it so, I’m really encouraged about that.
DT: Can you tell us about some of the field research projects, the typical ones and maybe some of the more unusual exciting ones that some of your students have undertaken?
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TV: Well, in the—in ecology, like I say, we work out in the field and there—there is a location here in Laredo, it’s called Las Palmas Park. It’s a city park now. It’s down on the banks of the Rio Grande and the first time I went down there I thought, this cannot be Laredo Texas. There’s a large palm grove. They’re not native palms. They’re—they’re an imported species but growing on the banks of the river and down there in the heart of that palm grove you could have been, you know, in the—the Amazon Basin. And so, students have taken an interest in the palm trees and—and have done some studies on the
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growth of the palm trees, how they—they spread, how the birds are involved in the spreading of the palm trees. And so the—the vegetation is one of the aspects I have students looking at. Another interest we—some of us here in Laredo have is the mussels in the Rio Grande, the clams. And apparently there are relatively few of the native species of clams left in the Rio Grande and those that are there are in very small populations, small pockets perhaps. And so, I’ve had students taken—trying to take a look at—at the clam populations in the river. Certainly the most common of the mollusks
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in the river of the—the bivalves is an imported version called the Asiatic clam and you find that virtually everywhere. You go to any—any gravel bar any sand bar or along the banks of the river, you find corbicula, the Asiatic clam. But it’s pretty uncommon to find even a shell of some of the native species. And so, I’ve had students trying to take a look at some of the distributions of the native species of—of mussels in the river.
DT: Have you been able to speculate as to why these mussels, the species and the population have changed?
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TV: Well, I think probably there—there are multiple factors. The Rio Grande, which is a very long river, has not actually been a naturally flowing river since about 1960. And the first reservoir, the first dam on the Rio Grande was over in New Mexico, Elephant Butte and that was back in 1916. And so, the river has been altered in—in its flow since at least that point in time. And then now we have two reservoirs on the international portion of the Rio Grande. Falcon re—reservoir about ninety mi—eighty miles downstream of us was built back in the 50’s, 1954 they started impounding water. And
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so, anything that would’ve come from the estuary upriver can’t do that anymore. So that—that could have an effect on the—the fauna in river maybe not the—the mussels per se but in other things that might have been able to make their way on up the river pretty much stopped by the—the dam at—at Falcon. The other reservoir up river from us at Del—up river from Del Rio is Amistad reservoir and that’s been there since the 1960’s, 1969 is when they started impounding water. And so, we’ve altered the flow of the river and so, that—that could certainly have had an effect on the organisms, not only the—the
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fish that—there seems to be some decrease in—in diversity of the fish in the river but in the—in the mussels as well. And over time, there’s been pollution that has gone into the river that I can’t say definitely has had an effect on these organisms but I can speculate that it may well have had a negative effect.
DT: You mentioned that you are more of a teacher and maybe less focused on research. What is it that you are trying to pass on to your students? How are you trying to inspire them? How do you manage to connect with them?
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TV: Well, I would—I would like for my students maybe to—to go a little further than I have. And one of—one of the things I have seen a change in and in Laredo many of our students that come to the—to the college, to the university that say “Well I wanted to be a M.D., I want to be a doctor.” And so they think that biology is the way to get there. And so, over the years I’ve encountered a lot of students that really weren’t biologists, weren’t really that interested in being biologists. They were using a degree in biology as a stepping stone to professional school, medical school, dental school, pharmacy school
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but I—what I’m trying to—to get across to these students is, you know, there are other options. And certainly if they—if their—if their main goal is making money, probably being a biologist is not the—the way to go. But there are certainly opportunities, especially for people that have biology degree, upper Master’s and PhD’s in biology. I mean, you know, we try to hire people at are institution here and it would be great if we had some of our local students that have gone off and gotten PhD’s at other institutions and that were interested in coming back and—and carrying on the—the tradition of—of getting other students involved in higher studies in—in biology.
DT: Have you seen much change as students have passed through your classrooms since the early 80’s till now as, I guess, kids spend—tend to come from larger towns and I understand have more sort of indoor lives than they might have certainly a generation or two ago?
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TV: Yeah, I think, well, like I mentioned earlier most of our students, you know, they—they don’t have that much experience being—being outdoorsy. I mean, you know, they’re—hunting is a big—a big thing in south Texas. You know, the White Tail Deer hunting and the bird, Dove, Quail hunting. If—if the students haven’t been involved some way in—or other with their families in those kind s of outdoor activities, most of them just don’t have very much of an experience in the—in the natural world. They spend way to much time in front of the T.V. and nowadays in front of the computer and
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the computer games in my—my opinion. But I try to get them interested in things beyond that and I—I have perhaps—most of them respond pretty positively, you know. I teach another course for non-majors called natural history of south Texas. And in that course I have, you know, business majors, music majors, criminal justice majors and they take the course and I explain to them the first day, if—if you’re not interested in going outdoors and finding what’s out here, you know, we got a three hundred acre campus here, over half of it’s undeveloped and so we’ve got lots of native vegetation, native organisms out there. And so, that course we spend a good deal of our time on campus here but outdoors taking a look at the vegetation, the animals that—that inhabit our campus.
DT: What are some of the themes and highlights of this natural history course that you teach?
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TV: Well, probably, I would say, the—the majority of my students, when they first come to the class, I will talk about Mesquite Trees. Well, certainly Mesquites are a very common element in the south Texas landscape. Well, the first time I take them out there, I ask somebody to point out a Mesquite Tree and most of them cannot do that. And so, at least by the end of the course, they can—they can recognize a Mesquite Tree when they see one and they can recognize; I’ve got a list of about fifty common woody plants that are in south Texas. And I expect them to be able to sight identify those plants by the end
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of the semester so that if they’re driving down the highway between here and San Antonio and they see a huisache, they’ll know they’re looking at and if they see black brush they’ll know what they’re looking at. So…
DT: And is part of what your trying impart not just being able to know your Taxonomy and identify things by sight but also know what role a Mesquite Tree, for example, might have for human settlements or for wildlife?
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TV: Well, yeah that’s—that’s a good deal of what we try to do, is try to link all these things together, you know, why did the mesquite trees grow where they do? Why are the huisache’s kind of have their own distribution out there? And then what kinds of animals take advantage of these different kinds of plants? What—what eats this? What eats that? How is it all interrelated?
DT: I’ve heard and I’m curious if this is any truth to it, that some of the distributions of mesquite and huisache were connected to early cattle drives that went from south to north, is that so?
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TV: Well, I certainly, you know from what I read, when the Spaniards first came through to this part of Texas, it was a grassland. There might have been some scattered Mesquites here then but certainly cattle have been instrumental in the spread of Mesquites and some of these other legumes because they—they can eat the—the Mesquite beans. The beans pass through the digestive track then will germinate and so, the cow that eats the Mesquite bean is going to be spreading the Mesquites further and further. I, you know, when I drive from, let’s say, from here to college station, I see
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mesquites all the way along the way but I see Mesquites there intermixed with Oaks and some other things that we don’t have down here. And I think that probably those Mesquites further north were certainly there as a result of—of cattle. I think the Mesquites were probably here initially or nearby but the—the cattle, yeah; have had a big impact on changes in the—the vegetation. Now Laredo at one time was sheep country. Most people don’t—don’t know that but back in the—the twenties, there were more sheep than cattle grown in this part of the country. And it used to be a big horse raising area as well. But now it’s mainly cattle as far as domestic animals but most of the ranchers that, you know, have a big spread out there probably make more money off their White Tail deer then they do their cattle, you know, they—the hunting leases are more—more lucrative than raising a few head of cattle out there.
DT: What sort of effects have you seen in the biota around Laredo and in southwest Texas from the kind of land uses you’re talking about, the cattle grazing, the sheep grazing and more recently the wildlife industry?
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TV: Well, the other—the other indicator I look at is—is the Prickly Pear Cactus. The Prickly Pears have been here but I can drive down the highway and I can see areas that are almost pure stands of Prickly Pear. Well, to me that indicates serious over grazing at some time in the past that have allowed those Prickly Pears to pretty much take over. You know, and so there’s—there’s some real problems with land management. And, you know, the—the ranchers here, like I say, are interested in raising White Tailed deer and if they can manage their land in order to—to increase the populations of the deer, the—the health of those deer, then that’s what they’re interested in doing. And if you ever fly over this part of south Texas, you can see some of those management practices where they’ll go in and remove a strip of the woody vegetation and leave a strip of woody vegetation and remove a strip. It’s kind of like sometimes checkerboard patterns so that the—the
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deer have some cover but they also have some open areas to—to feed in as well. And so—the—the land management has, you know, changed the environment a good deal and largely for the—the White Tailed deer I think. The other thing, of course, is simply the growth. You know, when I first moved to Laredo there was a lot more agriculture along the Rio Grande in the—the Laredo area and even before I came here the—it was much more than—than even when I got here. When I moved to Laredo out behind my back fence was a big cantaloupe fields. That’s all a field of houses now and so—and if we go
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out Mines Road, out to the—to the north, which twenty-five years ago was also mainly agricultural fields, fields of—of broccoli, of onions of things like that, today it’s either houses or warehouses. And so, yeah, the growth has been tremendous in Laredo over the past twenty-five years.

DT: We’ve talked a little bit about your students’ research and studies and some of the land use changes that they may have witnessed. I’m wondering if you could talk some about your own research. I understand that you’ve been doing work on macroinvertebrates and perhaps other creatures as well.
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TV: Yeah, a number of years ago, like I say, I was—my background’s not really in water, not really in aquatic organisms but a few years ago, I got interested in the Rio Grande and monitoring what’s going on the—in the Rio Grande. And the focus really was what is the effect of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo on the water quality of the Rio Grande. As the water passes through here, we take some of it out, we use it, we put a lot of things back into the river. And the—the question was well, what—what are the effects of these two cities on the water? And in addition to doing basic water chemistry, basic
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bacteriology of the water, one of the other things I’ve been interested in and one of the ways people have assessed quality of water is what kind of organisms are living in there? What are the populations like? What are the—what’s the diversity/ And so one of the things that been doing for a number of years on two sites of the river, the river site upstream of most of Laredo, Nuevo Laredo, where there’s no influences from us, there may be influence from Eagle Pass and towns upriver but there’s no influence of Laredo. We’ve been collecting macroinvertebrates over the years to see what the populations
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are, what kind of organisms in there. And as a comparison we’ve been sampling a site down at the Webb/Zapata County line. And we’re looking from there at water that has passed through Laredo and Nuevo Laredo and whatever we’d added to it’s had an influence on it. And when we first started doing the macroinvertebrate studies, Nuevo Laredo had no wastewater treatment plant. At that time an estimated twenty-five million gallons of raw sewage was going into the river everyday. And so, we were looking at the effects of that on the organisms downstream compared to the organism upstream. Well, just because water’s polluted doesn’t mean there’s nothing living in it. There are some
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organisms that are very tolerant of pollution and then there are others that are very intolerant. And so, knowing which ones are tolerant and which ones are intolerant and making collections and identifying and plugging these into indices that people have developed over the years based on the tolerances of these organisms, you can tell something about the water quality. And since Nuevo Laredo’s wastewater treatment plan came online in 1996, we have certainly seen a change in the macroinvertibrates downstream. Initially, mainly what we would collect would be dipteran larvae, flies,
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midges, things that are very tolerant of pollution. Today we collect things that are more—that require better quality water. Things like Mayflies, hellgrammites, things that are—are indicators of better water quality. I can’t say that the—the upriver site and the downriver site are the same yet and probably never will be because we will continue to put material into the river from our wastewater treatment plants and from runoff from the City of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo that are going to continue to have an effect on the water quality downstream. But certainly one of the—the pieces of good news, I would
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say, is the wastewater treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo has made a big impact on the water quality downstream.
DT: Maybe you could give us a little background about this research program. One thing I’d be curious to know is how do you do your sampling and what’s sort of the range of creatures that you might find? Are there any benthic organisms or is it more insects that are higher in the water column?
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TV: Well, the way we—the way we usually do the—ag—when we first started we were very naïve. We had something called a server sampler and it’s simply a net with a metal frame on it that you—you set this down in the bottom of the—the river. And then it’s usually a two person operation and another person gets upstream of the net and picks up rocks off the bottom and—and scrubs them with their hands, washes any organisms off and they go into the net. And after a period of time or after you’ve sampled a certain area, then you take the organisms out. You count them, preserve them and then bring
00:43:03 – 2364
them back to the lab and—and identify them and plug that data into the—the index. Well, I say we were naïve because for several months, we were ju—just using our server sample—sampler and going down and collecting the samples. Well, one day we went down and well, the water was about fifteen feet higher than it had normally had been and so we figured well, we’re not going to get any invertebrates out of—out of the river today. And so we tried some artificial habitats for these organisms in—in order to—you put milk crate of—full of rocks that you can just on a regular basis retrieve and take the
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organisms off of the rocks or there’s some—some commercial samplers called a hesti—hester-dendy trap or sampler that you put it in the river and then you can pick it up occasionally and take the organisms that are attached to it off. But today we have found that the—the thing that works best for us is with just a simple little d-net, what we call a
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kick net. Take it down to the river if the—if the flow permits, if it’s not too high and you just simply put the net down on the bottom of the—the river bottom and kick the rocks in front of it to dislodge organisms. And so, these are being washed into the net and we normally do a five minute kick so, we can, you know, put the same amount of effort into each one of the samples so we’ll have and idea of what the populations are. And so, we do a five minute kick up river and collect those organisms. Go down to the down river site and do the same thing and then compare the samples from the—the same day at each
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one of these so that the kick net seems to work the best. And normally you would like have a minimum of a hundred organisms out of each one of those samples. And usually it’s not that big a problem to find a hundred organisms because they’re—some of them are extremely small. And, you know, after—after you get the big damsel flies and the Dragon flies and some of the beetles and some of the bigger larvae, then you’re back, you know, to the smaller and smaller things. But that’s important that you get the small things because we’re looking for diversity here. And so, we’d like to have a, you know, a
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pretty good picture of everything that’s living in that water. And so, that’s—that’s the way we—we collect the macroinvertebrates is with the—with the five minute kick out into the river.
DT: And let’s see if I understand this, you mostly count them and categorize them and describe them but do you also find out what sort of chemicals there might be within these organisms or what kind of lesions they might have?
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TV: Well, the macroinvertebrates, we—we haven’t done any kind of chemical analysis on those. In addition okay, the—we do four sites on the Rio Grande in the Laredo region, once a month. In addition to that, I also work with the International Boundary and Water Commission on the clean rivers program. And for that we have seven sites that we sample. And for that kind of sampling we do different sites—we do various number of times a year but we do the seven sites twice a year. And so, it’s a long day. We start at the Columbia Bridge, which is about nineteen miles up river from Laredo and we have
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sites at each one of the bridges. We do—do a site at the Columbia Bridge and then the World Trade Bridge, we have a site there were we collect and then at the—Rio—at the Jefferson Street Water Treatment Plant where Laredo Texas water in from the Rio Grande, we have a site there. And then we move on down to bridge two and then on down river eventually to San Ignacio which is another thirty miles or so down river. So, we do about a hundred mile—hundred river mile stretch when—and—sap—sampling seven different sites. Now then that work includes not only collecting the basic water
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chemistry data, the bacterial data, but also we collect water samples for heavy metals. We collect sediment samples for heavy metals and all those samples are sent off to an E.P.A. approved lab. We don’t do the analysis ourselves because that—that data needs to be done by an approved lab that is certified. So, we just collect the samples of the sediments and the water for the—the heavy metals to keep and eye on, you know, what’s going on and we do that twice a year at these seven different sites.
DT: Well, are you picking up any signs of heavy metals or pesticides or solvents that might be coming from industrial processes?
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TV: Well, the—the heavy metals there—there are always metals in the river, you know, some of that’s naturally according. We have, back in the old days, anyway cinnabar mines, mercury mines, up in the Big Bend region and so, there’s, you know, rocks up there that contain mercury. Arsenic is always in the—the water, naturally according for the most case. One of the big—one of the big issues in Laredo over the years has been the antimony smelter that—there was company that would—went through various names but in—in the past twenty years, it was called Anzon America. It was actually a British
00:49:10 – 2364
corporation and they had a smelter that was set up on the banks of Monitas Creek, one of our creeks that flows into the Rio Grande, upstream of our water intake for the city and that—for over seventy years there was a antimony smelter. They brought the ore out of Mexico at a blast furnace that was smelting the metal. And eventually they took the blast furnace out. I think they actually took it back to Mexico to—to Reynosa for doing the smelting but the plant continued as a processing plant. And for years they were producing things like antimony trioxide and some other compounds of the antimony. And all this was right on the banks of the Monitas creek and so, all the runoff from the
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plant was going into the creek and then very quickly down to the river. And so, antimony was—is—is a concern. That plant now is closed. The site where it was is in a process of being remediated but apparently there’s some problems with the process that they were using and—and it looks like it’s going to be a long term process of getting that site cleaned up. And as—as time goes by, we’re guessing that, you know, there be more contamination of antimony from that plant even thought the TCEQ, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which in those days was the Texas Natural
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Resource Conservation Commission had them put in retention ponds out there so all the runoff from the plant would actually be caught in the retention ponds rather than going into the—into the Rio Grande. But that was like sixty-five years after this had been occurring anyway. It had been going on for a long, long time.
DT: Do you see any effects from the maquilas that, I guess, are in this area or perhaps from the warehousing?
00:51:18 – 2364
TV: Well one of our—one of my concerns is certainly been the warehouses because many of the warehouse districts are right on the banks of the river. And so, for years, I—I’ll have to say that I think things have improved in most or in a lot of those warehouses. Fifteen years ago, you’d drive through the warehouse districts and there were old barrels of who knows what just sitting out on the lots rusting away. And certainly anything from
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those situations if the barrels were ruptured or rusted through, short distance from the river that—all of that stuff would eventually end up in the river. But like I say I think, you know, the City of Laredo has some ordinances in place now. I don’t think they have nearly enough inspectors to enforce all of the ordinances that deal with the warehouses. But I think even thought the warehouse industry has continued to grow and there are more and more warehouses all the time and most of them are near the river, I think the—it seems to me anyway that the—the—the way those warehouses are actually functioning
00:52:34 – 2364
has maybe improved a little bit over the years. Maquiladoras—one of the things that when—when we first started doing the water quality monitoring and talking—you know, I think one—one of our goals was to educate people about what’s going on. And so the Rio Grande International Study was formed as a non-profit organization and we had three things that we thought this organization ought to do. It ought to be an educational organization. It ought to be involved in some research and the other one was bi-national cup—cooperation. And so, we do have a sister organization in Nuevo Laredo and over
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the years, that has worked very well and o—o her times not so well—not that—not that the organization itself had anything wrong. It’s just the people. People come and people go and to keep an organization going, there has to be somebody that’s really interested in keeping the organization afloat and functioning. And so there’s been, you know, some ups and downs with our international, bi-national cooperation. Now, the Maquilas, one of things that I was going to say, when we first started, we—we thought well, we got to—
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we got to talk to as many people as we can; we got to tell them about what’s going on in the river and what’s going in with the—the creeks. And people in Laredo say “Oh”, you know, “You’re fighting a losing battle here” and the other thing they would say “Well, the reason the water quality in Laredo is so bad is because of Nuevo Laredo.” But if you look at a map of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, Nuevo Laredo is downstream of our water treatment plant. And so, that point in time Nuevo Laredo was not affecting our water. They were affecting the water of the people that live downstream in—in El Cenizo, Rio
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Bravo on down to San Ignacio. But we were not being impacted by activities of the maquilas in—in Nuevo Laredo. One of the things that has altered that a little bit, I’m afraid, is we built a—a bridge called the World Trade Bridge and in my opinion, we put it in the absolute worst place we could put a commercial bridge and it is a commercial bridge. It’s only commercial vehicles that are allowed to cross that bridge. I mean, if we went out there, you and I went out there in our car to go across, we would not be allowed to cross that bridge. It is strictly commercial and I think, I don’t know what the actual
00:55:20 – 2364
numbers are but I hear maybe as many as nine to ten thousands trucks a day cross that bridge. And all of that’s happening upstream of our water treatment plant. The other thing putting that bridges where we did caused, was development in Nuevo Laredo. All of that land on the Mexican side of the river was simply ranch land. Now that we have an international bridge there, we’re seeing development growth talking place on the Mexican side as well as the U.S. side in that area. And so, if—if that continues, which I expect it will, Nuevo Laredo is going to need another wastewater treatment plant to take care of that part of the—the city.
DT: Has you sampling shown you much about the impacts that derive from Laredo versus those from Nuevo Laredo and if you’ve gotten any insight about how things operate in the states versus Mexico?

00:56:29 – 2364
TV: Well, the thing is, the water in the river does whatever the water in the river is going to do. I mean, it moves back and forth. So, it’s a little—little hard to say well, this was a result of something that happened on the U.S. side or on the Mexican side of the river. Certainly one of the things that struck me was back before Nuevo Laredo had the wastewater treatment plant, at one point they were diverting much of the raw sewage into the river at a particular point at Coyote Creek, downriver where the wastewater treatment plant near—is near there now. But they were diverting much of the raw sewage in and
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have an aerial photo of that and this dark, dark, black water coming out of the outfall into the Rio Grande. And you can see for a long way down river before the—the two—the—the dark black stuff mixed with the brown Rio Grande. So certainly the—the stuff that’s coming out of one city or the other hangs to the bank for a period of time but eventually it all gets mixed together. And, you know, depending on how much flow there is will—will determine how long it takes that stuff to get incorporated into the main part of the river.
DT: You were explaining earlier off tape about the construction of this sewage treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo and that it had actually treated a great deal of the waste in the city but that it had some connection problems, can you explain a little more…?
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TV: Yeah, well, the wastewater treatment plant in Nuevo Laredo actually was—was the first treatment plant on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. No other cities in—in Mexico on the Rio Grande not—not Juarez, not Acuña, not Reynosa or not—none of those cities had a wastewater treatment plant. And Nuevo Laredo was the first to—to have a functional plant and the plant was designed to be a thirty-one million gallon per day treatment facility. Pre-treatment plant, Nuevo Laredo was putting approximately twenty-five million gallons of raw sewage in the river on a daily basis. Well, that’s a lot of raw sewage. The treatment plant was designed to handle that much sewage plus some
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potential for future growth. The real problem was that when they first started, they had to go in and dig up the streets of Nuevo Laredo because at that point in time, there was no separation between sewage and storm water. It was all put in the same pipes because it was all going to the river anyway. There was no reason to have separate pipes—separate systems. So they had to go in and separate the storm drains from the—the sewer and they had to build a collector line along the banks of the—the river from the upper end of Nuevo Laredo down through, down to the treatment plant. And they built the treatment plant on the south side, the down river end of Nuevo Laredo so it would be a gravity fed
01:00:01 – 2364
system, so they wouldn’t have to have a lot of lift stations. And so, the—the flow of the sewage, once it gets into the collector line it just moves down hill to the treatment plant. And the first real pumps that are involved in—in moving the sewage is right there at the treatment plant. So they had a thirty-one million gallon design capacity, twenty-five million gallons that needed treating. And the U.S. government put in about seventeen million dollars, the State of Texas two millions dollars and the rest of the cost was the responsibility of Mexico. And as you can imagine, there always cost over runs and I think the—the final figure for the infrastructure and the plant itself was around sixty
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million dollars but the infrastructure’s not complete. There are still raw sewage outfalls in Nuevo Laredo that are con—continue to put on a daily basis, raw sewage into the river. Estimates I hear somewhere on the order of eight million gallons a day. Well that’s better than twenty-five million but still not good enough. We still need to figure out some way to get all of that sewage treated in Nuevo Laredo.
[End of Reel 2364]
DT: When we left off on the last tape, we were talking about the sampling that you’ve done and that others have done on the Rio Grande and some of the impacts on the water quality of the river. And I was curious if you could take us upstream a little bit and talk about any sampling or data that has been collected from some of the creeks that flow through Laredo and into the river. I understand that in 1994 there was a toxic study that was done that was useful. And maybe you can tell about it and any trends that might have occurred since then.
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TV: Yeah, well, the International Boundary and Water Commission and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the Texas Department of Health, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife and a whole long line of state and federal agencies and their counterparts in Mexico did a study of the toxic materials in the Rio Grande and its tributaries. And that study was published in 1994. What they were doing was looking for toxic materials in water, in sediments, in fish tissues, at different points along the river. And they actually sampled at places along the river, all the way from El Paso Juarez to—
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to Brownsville, Matamoras. And they screened for about 174, I believe, toxic chemicals, organics, pesticides, metals and so forth. And my recollection is that at some point along the way, they found thirty toxic chemicals that ex—that exceeded either EPA levels or some other agency’s levels. The absolute worst place on the Rio Grande at that period of time, according to their sampling, was just downstream of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. I think they found eleven toxic substances in the river just below Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. And that was the—the highest incidence of toxic materials at any given place.
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They also looked at the creeks, the tributaries and I mentioned Monitas Creek earlier where the Anzon smelter had been for several decades. And it was no surprise that antimony and thallium and some other heavy metals were found in high levels there. The other creeks in Laredo that they sampled were Zacate Creek. Zacate Creek is the creek that runs pretty much down the middle of—of Laredo. And one of the major toxic chemicals they found there was diazinon. Now diazinon is an insecticide that up until about two years ago, you could go down to the local grocery store or any place that
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would sell insecticides and you could buy diazinon. Well, in the U.S. it was taken off of the market about two years ago because it was determined that this caused some pretty serious neurological damage, especially in children. Well, Zacate Creek had high levels of diazinon and there’s no agriculture per se on—on Zacate Creek and so the speculation, of course, is that it’s us! You know, we got fire ants, we got imported fire ants out in the—out in the lawn. We got to get rid of those fire ants well how we going to—well diazinon. And so I think the diazinon in that creek was largely the result of just the—the inhabitants using—overusing this insecticide and then the runoff into the storm drains
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and then eventually into the creek was the cause of that. One of the other creeks is Chacon Creek, which is one of the—is the biggest watershed in the Laredo area. And one of the main contaminates there was chlordane. And chlordane is another pesticide—another insecticide but it’s been banned in the United States for, oh, approaching thirty years now and—but a very persistent pesticide. Initially when it was first on the market,
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we used it for all kinds of applications. Eventually it was approved only for termite control. And so, if you were going to build a structure that might be potentially damaged by termites, you would treat the soil where you going to build that structure before you build it and extremely persistent and so, there were high levels of chlordane in Chacon Creek in the sediments of Ch—Chacon Creek, even though it hadn’t been used in this country for well over twenty years before that study was carried out. And so the tributaries—each tributary had its own profile of—of toxic substances based pretty much
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on what’s going on in that watershed. Then on up river the—the second worst place was just below El Paso. And so any time you have a municipality, a city, there are things going to be going in to the—going in to the creeks and then into the water of the—the rivers. And so we expect a spike in, you know, contaminates of some kind or other, whether it’s fecal contamination or heavy metals, just depending on what’s going on in the—in the watershed that leads into the river.

DT: Do you know of any research that’s turned up connections from these toxics in the river with public health problems? I know there have been a lot of concern about neural tube defects down in the valley, anything similar to that that you can put to?
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TV: Well, all I can say about that is there was, you know, a lot of speculation about the relationship between toxic materials, either in the water or the air that cluster down in Cameron County of—of the neural tube defects, the—the anencephaly and the spina bifida. I just read an article in the newspaper recently that they—there’s a new twist on this that it perhaps was contamination of corn used to make tortillas that these women may have been eating during the first trimester of pregnancy and toxins from the—the fungus that was growing in the corn may have been a contributing factor. That’s something I—I don’t know. I haven’t read the study that reported that, just a newspaper
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article. But that’s kind of a new—new twist on it. Certainly I would say one of the things that that generated was a lot of interest in pregnant women or women that are going to become pregnant potentially to be sure to get enough folic acid in their diet because there certainly are studies that do indicate vitamins in the diet can, at least, have some effect on preventing neural tube defects. Now, I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what caused that cluster of—of those defects down—down in the lower Rio Grande Valley. But we do know that there are, you know, toxic chemicals going into the
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river, that there are people that dump things illegally. At the University here, you know, we have to keep a close track on our waste chemicals. And once we got a—a container of waste chemicals, we have to pay somebody good money to haul that stuff away and dispose of it properly. And so, it’s an expensive proposition to have to get rid of toxic chemicals. And I’m afraid a lot of people find it easier just to dump it in the creek or dump them in the river and—and so, I’m thinking that’s the source of some of the contamination that’s gone on in the past and probably continues to th—to this day.

DT: You pointed out that the pollution problems that were identified in the 1994 study were clustered around El Paso and Laredo and I guess were connected with those municipalities in the urban growth that occurred there. I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the growth in Laredo and maybe tied in with the passage of NAFTA back in, I think, it was in 1995 and the influence that might have had on the pattern in Laredo growth here in the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo areas?
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TV: Well, I think Laredo was already pretty heavily involved with dealing with Mexico even pre-NAFTA. I think NAFTA probably speeded up some of the—the activity. I think since NAFTA was a three country trade agreement, all—all we look at down here on this borders is what’s happening between U.S. and Mexico and the NAFTA was a fifteen year phase-in program. Not everything happened in 1995 and so, new—new segments of that agreement get implemented as time goes by. So I think we’re in about the eleventh year of a fifteen year phase-in and certainly the—what I see going on in—in
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Laredo and Nuevo Laredo and the number of trucks—certainly there are more trucks now then there were pre-1995. I—I hear nine thousand, ten thousand trucks a day crossing the World Trade Bridge upstream of our Jefferson Street water treatment plan. But—the interesting thing to me is if we look at Laredo and the growth of Laredo out toward the World Trade Bridge out—what we call a Mines Road, Farm to Market 1472, twenty years ago if we had been looking out in that direction, we would have seen mainly
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agricultural plants. We would see onion fields and today we see houses, we see warehouses, we see a bridge carrying trucks back and forth across the river. So that—that area has grown tremendously and part of it is, I’m sure the result of NAFTA being implemented. One of the good things that that bridge did for us be—before the World Trade Bridge which, like I said earlier, I think was a bad place to put it—but one of the things it did, it got a lot of the traffic off of I35. Before that bridge opened, in the evening, trucks would back up three or four, five miles on the international highway 35
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out here waiting to get across into Mexico. And so it became a parking lot on the—the interstate. And so that’s one of the things that the—the bridge did was to get a lot of the traffic out of the downtown area, out of—off of I35 before it gets into Laredo. And so those trucks now go to the—the bridge—the World Trade Bridge without having to come directly into—into Laredo. Bu—but the growth continues out that way, growth continues in south Laredo as well. A new Wal-Mart going in, every time I drive, you know, doing our water sampling down river—every time I drive out hi—highway 83 south, I see new
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businesses, new houses, just tremendous growth going on down there. And so, a lot of the—a lot of the, I guess we could call it prosperity has been the result of trade with Mexico and the NAFTA being apart of that trade. And then, you know, one of the things that I speculate about and I can’t get very many people to—to agree with me and that’s probably because I’m usually wrong more than I’m right—that if NAFTA does what it’s supposed to, in another four years or so, we’re not going to need as much warehouse
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space as we have in Laredo because the way it works now is material comes from somewhere in the United States down to the border. And it doesn’t cross the border into Mexico until the customs duty’s paid, until the paperwork’s done by a broker in Mexico. And so the stuff gets off loaded into a warehouse and sits there until the paperwork’s done and the duty’s paid. Well, if NAFTA is implemented and there’s no duty to be paid on materials going into Mexico, there will be no need for the material to sit in warehouses as it is at the present time. So, I don’t know if they—the—if we may see a little dip in the economy of Laredo when NAFTA is fully implemented or not. That’s just speculation on my part.

DT: NAFTA seems to be mostly about freeing up the movement of goods and services back and forth across the border but I guess another thing that’s happened in the last twenty-five years since you arrived is a continuing stream of immigration, legal and illegal. And I’m curious what sort of impacts you see on these population changes, both in the Laredo area and then, you know, far downstream in Texas and more northern states?
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TV: Well, even since I’ve been in Laredo, I’ve certainly witnessed immigration, a lot of it illegal immigration. The more time you spend down on the banks of the river or in the river, the more opportunity you have to see people crossing the river. And it’s certainly not an uncommon sight to see people crossing the river at—in Laredo and up and
00:15:54 – 2365
downstream from Laredo. Just, you know, from observation, I think probably in the past twenty-five years, the number of people crossing illegally has increased. Certainly one of the ways you can tell how many people are crossing the river at a particular point, you go out on the river. Most of the people that cross the river illegally, strip down, you know, to their underwear, perhaps and put all their clothes in a black plastic bag and carry it on top of their head or in an inner tube or someway or other and then when they get across the river they abandon the wet clothes and put dry clothes on and abandon the black
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plastic bag and head inland. And so, you can find just mounds and mounds of clothing left on the banks of the river. And one of the things is do occasionally, I go down to a, you know, a common point where people cross and leave clothes and pick them up and take them to the dumpster and then go back in a couple of weeks and I can gauge how many people are crossing at that particular point over a period of time. But certainly I think that there’s been an increase in the number of people. This is something else that I don’t know if there’s any way to quantify this but my other observation has been there
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are far more females crossing the river today than there were twenty years ago by looking at the female apparel left on the banks of the river. You know, I didn’t use to see that very often but now, you know, it’s a lot of evidence that there are a lot of women crossing the river that I didn’t use to see very much of.

DT: Besides, I guess, this being a sign of poverty and people looking for jobs in the U.S., do you see it as any sort of long term sign of the population trends here in the country and the United States and what sort of impact that has on natural resources and on pollution levels and so on?
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TV: Well, I don’t—I think, you know, one of the—one of the selling points of NAFTA was it was going to improve the economic situation in Mexico to the point that these people would be employed and would not need to seek a better life elsewhere. Well, it looks like, maybe that hadn’t been too successful because there’s still a constant flow of people. And the other thing is, from what I understand and actually observe, it used to be mainly people coming from Mexico but in—in recent years there’s been a big upturn in immigration from Brazil, crossing the—the Rio Grande, lots of people from Central America crossing the Rio Grande at Laredo. So, it’s not—not only Mexicans looking for
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work in the United States. It’s people from—and I understand lots of people even coming from China up through Mexico and crossing the river here. But, yeah, if—if Mexico the—the—the only—the only solution that I see is somehow or other Mexico’s economic situation has got to improve. And as long as the economics of Mexico are as they are today, that stream of people will continue to flow through here. There’s just no—no way around it. I don’t know what the actual numbers are but I have read that Mexico’s population growth was going to, over the next few years, put approximately two million people into the population with no prospects of jobs. A couple million people a year is a lot of people to be crossing the border or looking for—for a way to improve their economic status.
DT: Well, does it make you think about what is a sustainable population here? And what’s the struggle with trying to maintain a population that is sustainable and yet not have some sort of anti-immigrant fever here along the border, throughout the country?
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TV: Well, since—since one of my interests is water, one of the things that I wonder about, anyway, is how big a population can live on the banks of the Rio Grande on the U.S. and Mexican side? How much water is there? And well, I mentioned drought earlier, you know, back in—back in the fifties we had a drought when Falcon Reservoir was being constructed downstream of us. That was an excellent time to build a reservoir because they didn’t have to divert any water because there wasn’t any water in the river. But since then, you know, the river, the—the Amistad was built and there have been times in the past where both of those reservoirs were full. They were at conservation
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capacity, you know. They couldn’t hold anymore water. And so, at that point in time, there was actually water leaving the Rio Grande going into the—the estuary into the Gulf of Mexico. As you may know, there have been some times in recent years where the Rio Grande did not make its way all the way to the Gulf, that it was impeded by a sandbar and the flow simply was not enough to carry the—the river to the—to Bolca Chica. So, but water is a—the quantity of water and population growth is a big concern. Right now, because we did have some pretty good rains last year, the Rio Grande, the—the
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reservoirs, Amistad and—and Falcon reservoirs, as far as the United States conservation is concerned is about ninety plus percent. So as far as the United States is concerned, those two reservoirs are almost full. As far as Mexico ownership of the water, I think it’s somewhere around 40-45 percent full. And so, right now if we look at Falcon Reservoir, if we look at Amistad reservoir, they seem to be in pretty good shape. In—in 2002, they were in terrible shape in terms in water storage. I think the United States; we were down to about twenty-five percent of the conservation pool. Mexico was well under ten percent. I—well, depends on how you want to look at it. As far as Mexico was concerned, the
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reservoir was either ten percent full or ninety percent empty. As far as U.S. concerned, twenty-five and seventy-five or thereabouts. But certainly droughts come and go and we’re—we seem to be, at least in our part of the—the Rio Grande, okay as—as far as storage in those two reservoirs but it’s been a long time since its rained here. I think on the—the weather last night, I heard that it’s been about—almost seventy days since we had miserable rainfall here. Yesterday we did have 2/100th of an inch, which is considered measurable so we have broken the spell with 2/100th of an inch of rain. But,
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you know, quantity of water in the Rio Grande and I might—might have also mention, they way I view the Rio Grande is actually two river systems. The river originates as the headwaters in the Rio Grade and the San Luis Valley of Colorado. It makes its way down through the great State of New Mexico and essentially ends at El Paso Juarez. The—the river downstream of El Paso, a strip of that river is—is known as the
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“Forgotten River” and part of that is described as an intermittent stream, which means it may well be dry part of the time. Well, our river originates in the mountains of Chihuahua; the Rio Conchos Basin is where the water that we see in Laredo, a good deal of it comes out of the mountains in Chihuahua. We also have the Pecos River. We have the Devil’s River and we have some other tributaries and springs along the way. But we’ve, you know, there was a point a few years ago in the Big Bend Region the river was dry. And—and that certainly will happen again and more people there are demanding
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water from the Rio Grande, the—the—the bigger demand we’re going to put on that water supply and there’s going to be a finite number of people that can be supported by that river. Of course, in Laredo, we’ve heard for years about a secondary source of water. And we’re in the middle of the political season in Laredo and all the politicians, both at the county level and the city level are talking about well when I’m elected, we’re going to go out there and get this secondary source of water so we don’t have to rely on the Rio Grande. We’re going to find groundwater somewhere that we’re going to supplement our
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Rio Grande with. Well, we haven’t been too successful at that yet. You know, there are aquifers out there; water quality in most of those aquifers is way less than the quality of the water in the Rio Grande. So, even if we could tap into an aquifer that would supply a significant amount of water, it would take a good deal of cleaning up to make it potable water. And so, even if we find a secondary source, it’s going to be very expensive.

DT: Can you talk about some of the reasons that there may be water shortages in the future for Laredo and downstream cities? I understand that, you know, population growth is—part of it the demand is going up but there has also been problems with construction dam in more recent years, in Mexico on the Conchos and also salt cedar growth along some of the channels that run into the United States, can you add some detail to that?
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TV: Well, if we go down to the banks of the river and take a look at the vegetation down there, especially in places like Laredo and then up on the Pecos, which is a tributary that leads into the Rio Grande and in that forgotten river section of the river, one of the major problems is Salt Cedar and Salt Cedar is a very thirsty plant. It’s a non-native species imported from the old world. It’s—it’s found from North Africa all the way across into China, different species of it and was imported in the United States oh, for a couple of reasons, I suppose. One is simply as an ornamental, people to grow in
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their yards and the other some people thought it was a good way to stabilize the banks of rivers. When you grow Salt Cedars, eventually they—they produce a lot of seeds and those seeds get washed here and there and blown here and there. And once you’ve got Salt Cedar, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. The—from the literature I read, they—they tell me a mature Salt Cedar can evapo—transpire up to two hundred gallons of water per day. And if you have thousands and thousands of—of Salt Cedars then you’ve got a problem and…

DT: When we broke just a few moments ago, we were talking about Tamarisks, Salt Cedars, on the Rio Grande and you were explaining the problem they have caused with the flow. Can you give us a little more elaboration on that?
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TV: Well, the—the Salt Cedars are found in the—the tributaries of the Rio Grande. The distribution of Salt Cedars is not uniform along the river. If you go up, oh, let’s say to Dryden up the river 150 or so miles, you see Salt Cedar but not very many. It’s places—especially spl—places that have been highly disturbed and the banks of the Rio Grande and Laredo, I had some students, one of my ecology projects, a couple of years ago—their project was to determine how many mature Salt Cedars there were between bridge number two in downtown Laredo and the World Trade Bridge up river. And so they spent a good deal of time just, you know, traversing from one end to the other, mainly on foot,
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to count the—the mature Salt Cedars. And they came to almost 4,000 Salt Cedars on the U.S. side in that short stretch of—of the river. Now, that’s mature, I mean, when we talk about mature Salt Cedar, we’re talking about diameter of eight to ten inches minimum and then on up from there. And so, if—if each one of those is actually transpiring a couple of hundred gallons of water per day, that is a significant amount of water. And that was just between the two bridges that we were talking about and that was only on the
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U.S. side and certainly there’s Salt Cedars on both sides of the river. So, the City of Laredo is actually the—the Parks and Recreation of the City of Laredo has decided that they may try to do a little—a little bit of Salt Cedar control along the banks of the river in—in the City of Laredo. Unfortunately, the only way that I know of that you can do that is with some kind of herbicides. You know, if you just go down and cut the tree down as close to the ground as you possibly can, that’s not going to control it because it’s going to put out suckers that grow up and before long, you got a huge bush and it
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eventually turns into a huge tree again. So, just cutting them is not—not the answer. So you’d have to cut them and then treat the—the stump some way with an herbicide. And my—my students actually did a little bit of—of investigation about that and what kind of herbicides would work the best. And certainly the—the Salt Cedars can be controlled with herbicides but it’s a very labor intensive and a very expensive proposition to do that. You know, then—if—in terms of the amount of water that you can conserve, you know, you’d have to cut down an awful lot of Salt Cedars and—and it would be an ongoing
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project because, like I mentioned, they produce a lot of seeds and there are a lot of seeds out there and they get windblown and they got—get carried by the water. And so, if you were really going to be serious about controlling them, you’d need to start up river or up creek and work your way down because going the other way is not going—not going to get you anywhere.
DT: I guess one of the other concerns about flow to the river has been the proposals for dams. And some dams have been built, of course, the existing ones you’ve talked about Elephant Butte, Amistad and Falcon, but also I think there’s been one actually constructed on the Rio Conchos in Mexico and then one that was proposed but not constructed near Dryden. Can you discuss the—those two?
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TV: Well, the—on the international portion of the Rio Grande, the U.S. and Mexico signed, what we call the Treaty of 1944 and the Treaty of 1944 apportioned the waters of the Rio Grande and the Colorado River. And so, it was a fairly complex treaty but the idea was some water that originates as precipitation in the United States will be delivered to Mexico and water that originates in Mexico will be delivered to the United States. And for us in this part of the Rio Grande, that Mexican water originates mainly in the—in the mountains of Chihuahua and the Rio Conchos Basin. The Rio Conchos is also that
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watershed—the—the population growth there in—in Chihuahua and along that watershed is also really taking off. And so, there actually, I believe, five reservoirs on the Rio Conchos in Mexico, Boquilla being the largest one. And so, Mexico impounds water along that watershed for use for agriculture mainly but for other uses as well. And so, water that, at one point in time would’ve made its way directly down to the Rio Grande is now being impounded in Mexico. And up until a couple of years ago, that Treaty of 1944—the conditions of that treaty were not being met by Mexico. Mexico, at one point
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in time, owed the United States somewhere on the order of one and a half million acre feet of water. An acre-foot is about is—an acre is—a football field is about an acre so, if you can envi—envision a football field with a foot of water on it, that would be an acre-foot. That’s about 326,000 gallons of water and Mexico owed the United States one and a half million acre-feet of water. Well, they were in the midst of a drought, just like we—I mean, it was, you know, it was a—the drought and so, they were not releasing water from the Rio Conchos Basin into the Rio Grande for the United States. And so,
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they were in arrears of their—of their water debt, the water payment to the United Sates. Well, they’re—they’re in the process of paying that off and—and actually one of the reasons the Rio Grande reservoirs, the Falcon and Amistad, as far as the U.S. is concerned are in pretty good shape is because part of that water is water that’s been transferred from Mexico in their attempt to pay off the water debt. Then the other thing that some people find a little surprising is that most of the water—about 85 to95 percent of the water in the Rio Grande belongs to irrigation districts, belongs to agriculture. In
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order to take water out of the Rio Grande, you have to own the water and water rights are bought and sold as a commodity. And so, if you wanted to buy a few acre feet of water, you would find somebody that was willing to sell you a few acre feet of water and you could buy that. But most of it belongs to agriculture and during the—the drought when Mexico was not able to meet their obligation, it was mainly the farmers in the lower Rio Grande Valley that weren’t getting the water that they normally would’ve gotten to
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irrigate their crops. Municipalities have priority even though agriculture actually owns most of the water. If the reservoirs get to a certain point, they get so low then agriculture is the first to be—have to curtail their water uses and municipalities continue to draw water out of the river. But the—the treaty of ’44 called for a maximum of three reservoirs on the Rio Grande and those two have been constructed, Amistad and—and Falcon and there’s been talk over the years of a third reservoir. I don’t think it’ll ever happen, personally. I just don’t—I don’t really see a place for a third reservoir but once again, I could be wrong.

DT: Well, you told us a lot about the water quality and flow (?) in the Rio Grande and about a lot of impacts on it. I was hoping if you could use that as a background to some of the advocacy and educational work that’s been done at the Rio Grande International Study Center, which you were one of the founders of and have been a chair for a number of years of the board, perhaps you can explain what the center’s been involved in?
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TV: Well, as I mentioned earlier, one of our main focuses has been education. And when we talk about education, we’re talking about educating school children from, you know, kindergarten all the way up through college and university students. But we also thought there was a need to educate some of our local politicians. I—I don’t know how many people understand that, okay, we have some regulatory agencies, we have the EPA and in Texas, we have T.C.E.Q., the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality but
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those two agencies don’t really do a whole lot unless the municipal government wants them to. And so, really the City Council is a much more important body than most people realize when it comes to decisions that are made affecting water, affecting the environment. And so, one of our—one of our goals was to try to educate the City Council, the County Commissioners and people that—that make decisions locally about, you know, some of these decisions may affect water quality, may affect the flow in the
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river. And so, that’s one of the things our International Study Center has tried to do, is to educate all the way from pre-school on up.

DT: Can you give us some examples of classes you’ve offered or campaigns that you’ve pursued with politicians?
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TV: Well, more—the most recent thing that has been done is what we call the Green Space Ordinance in the City of Laredo. The—the idea there was—as—well, Laredo is interested in growth and municipalities, and local governments tend to think growth is always good. I don’t necessarily agree but certainly one of the things that companies, let’s say from out of state that are interested in setting up some kind of operation in Laredo, down here on the border—they bring in their—their executives and they, you know, they ask some questions about, you know, how many golf course do you have? How many, you know, amenities do you have that if I move here, if I move my company
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here, what are my people here going to do? And one of the things that people coming from more verdant places than this, they say “Wow, where’s—where’s the greenery? That’s one of the things that they want to know about because—and essentially the only place we have greenery, naturally, is along the watercourses, the creeks. Unfortunately the creek, Zacate Creek that we mentioned earlier that runs down through the middle of Laredo has been largely channelized and—and got concrete banks and there is no vegetation per se growing along there. No trees, no habitat for birds, no—so, anyway the
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Green Space Ordinance which the Rio Grande International Study Center was a part of working on with—with the development community, with the—the land developers and the—eventually the City Council was to get that ordinance hammered out. And it took a good while to get it hammered out because developers were interested in developing every square foot possible, which would encroach on the creeks. And so, one of the educational activities we carried out was to try to get the—the developers and the City Council on board with the idea that, you know, it might be a good idea to preserve what
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greenery we have because some people are kind of interested in that and some people like to have parks that have trees and birds and butterflies. And so, anyway, the—the—that was one of the—the more recent things that we’ve done to try to educate people of the value of preserving the creeks. And certainly one of the—one of the arguments that we were able to make was if you just have a concrete chute that goes directly to the river, all the contaminants are going to go directly into the river. There’s not going to be any—
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any absorption by the soil. There’s not going to be any chance for vegetation to—to help remediate these problems. And so we’ve—we’ve worked pretty hard to get the Green Space ordinance passed. And now we’re involved in trying to be sure it gets enforced. So the—that’s—that’s one of the educational things that we’ve done at the—at the city level anyway. The other—the other thing I want to mention is the—the—at the Laredo community college there is a center there called the Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center and that center is dedicated to study of the Rio Grande Basin. And they
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have displays over there of the plants and the animals of the Rio Grande watershed. Well that is an outgrowth of—of work of the Rio Grande International Study Center. That was, you know, our—that was our baby. It’s actually the uni—the college that owns it and maintains it but that was one of the—the things that the—the Rio Grande International Study Center was initiated and—and got going several years ago.

DT: And the program there is partly to show the biota, the fish from the upper reaches and the middle reaches, lower reaches?

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TV: Right, we—we, you know, it’s not only the—the things you would find around Laredo and this in the Tamaulipan part of the Rio Grande watershed but there—there, you know, an aquarium that has the fish from the head water region, the colder and then all the way down to the estuary. Now another thing that we’ve done educationally along
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with the center over there, we—we had a grant, well, actually had two grants that we wrote curriculum for different grade levels in the—in the public schools that the teacher would teach lessons on environmental science. And then the students would take a field trip to the center to observe some of the things that they had studied in the classroom. And then there was curriculum for follow-up on that. And so we had—we have curriculum for various grade levels. And the second grant we got was to translate that into Spanish. And that grant also brought a lot of students from Nuevo Laredo to the
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center. Their—their teachers dealt with the curriculum in advance and then they took field trips to the center and there were follow-up curricular activities. And so, that’s one of their—our educational aspects of our organization is to—to get teachers more knowledgeable so they can teach their students about environmental issues and the Rio Grande issues and—and—and have a field trip to the Environmental Science Center.
DT: We often start to wrap up these interviews by asking you, you might have somebody, some kind of message for the future. You’ve been involved in education from school age kids, at the Bruni Vergara Center and also undergraduates and even graduate students and then even politicians, adults. What sort of message would you want to pass on to the younger generation about the natural world and about conservation in general?
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TV: Well, I think if there’s one message I would like to get—get across to—to—to people, in general, is pay attention to what’s going on around you, you know. Try to understand, you know, what one action might—the effect that it might have on other things in your environment. I—I told you that I—I teach this Natural History of South Texas course and one of the things I always do the first lab, I say “We’re going to go out and spend a half an hour walking around campus.” And so we’ll go out and we’ll walk around campus and then we’ll come back into the lab and I will ask “Well, what did you see?” And you—maybe you wouldn’t be surprised but quite often I get oh, I didn’t
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notice anyt—I didn’t see anything, I, you know, I didn’t, you know, I didn’t see anything out there. Well, one of the—one of the things I want people to—to do is start paying attention on—to what’s going on out there. And the other thing at the—at the university level I, you know, I encourage students to get involved in what’s going on out there. I mean, I’m not a politician and I don’t support any political party or candidate but a lot of these decisions that are going to affect all of us are obviously made by politicians. And so I’d like for our—our students to start paying attention and, you know, if they have an opportunity to get involved in some of these things, it may influence the politicians and
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others to—to make the right decisions enviromentally when it comes to—to water conservation, you know, what can we do to conserve water? Look around see—see what other places have done. I mean, Laredo is—is not—does not have a very good record of water conservation, you know. We’re not really big on conservation and part of the reason is well, people say “Well, if we don’t take it out of the river, it just goes on down river, you know, we missed it” Well, is that a bad thing? So, yeah, I think education is—is one of the things I’m extremely interested in trying to educate students and, like I say, all the way up about the consequences of some of the things we do.

DT: It seems you’ve worked hard to get people to pay attention to the natural world in general but in particular the river and I was wondering if you could close out this interview by telling us about trips that you’ve made to the river, either in inflatables or kayaks or canoes?

00:49:11 – 2365
TV: Yeah, well, when—when we—like I mentioned earlier, I grew up in the desert and spent most of my life in the—in the desert before I came to Laredo. And when we first started looking at the river, we thought well, we—we ought to get out there on the water because it probably looks a little different from that advantage point than it does from the banks of the river. And so we started—we had an old military surplus life raft, a seven place raft. And so we get seven people in that and—and we’d always take the pump with us because it leaked pretty badly but we would do little excursions starting up river and then coming down to Laredo and then going through Laredo, seeing some of the outfalls,
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some of the problems of where things were coming into the river. We’ve pretty much graduated from the old leaky raft to canoes and kayaks now. If you—and it’s surprising, I guess, in a way, how few people actually use the river for any kind of recreation. Certainly if you’re in Austin you go to—I mean you see kayaks and canoes out on the—on the—the rivers all the time. Well there’s very few people that have canoes or kayaks
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in Laredo. And so this is another thing we’ve tried to educate people on. Hey, that river—that river’s, you know, a beautiful river. And if you get out on the river, there are lots of things to see and do. And so, I teach—I teach in the summer time, I teach a course for teachers. It’s a—the name of the course is Teaching Environmental Science and it’s funded by the T.C.E.Q. and a part of that course, I insist that the students actually take a little canoe trip with us as part of the course. And it turns out that a lot of them are a little apprehensive at first but I think it—in—in the end, it’s probably one of their favorite
00:51:18 – 2365s
parts of the whole course, something that they had never done, that they’d never consider doing and get a better idea of the river and what goes on in the river and along the banks of the river. So we—we do canoe trips as often as possible.
DT: What do you think that they see and enjoy the most when they visit the river on boat?
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TV: Well, I think most of them have never seen the river except when they cross the bridges and that’s not a very attractive sight. As I say, it’s a beautiful river. I mean, it is just, you know, gorgeous especially if you get away from town and you see wildlife that you don’t see in town. I mean, you see lots of Great Blue Herons, lots of egrets, lots of other kinds of—of birds that inhabit the banks of the river. One of the—one of the trips in the past couple of years, in the summertime, we were paddling along and there’s a turkey that actually flew acr—a wild turkey, that flew across the river in front of us, you know. I think—I think that amazed the students more than anything, you know, seeing a turkey out there on the—on the river.
DT: Well, thank you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
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TV: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. And, you know, I’m sometimes more optimistic than other times. I think we’ve got some challenges ahead of us here in—in Laredo and in the Rio Grande watershed as a whole but I hope, you know, fifty years from now, that the river will still be flowing and we’ll still have the wildlife and the—the vegetation. And so, I appreciate the opportunity, thank you.
DT: Well, thank you.
End of tape 2365
End of interview with Tom Vaughan