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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting April 21, 2005

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, April 21, 2005

The meeting was called to order by Don Dowdey, Chair, who introduced Fran Sage for a political update.

Fran gave out pamphlets explaining low-level radioactive waste and the current attempts to bury it in West Texas. "We're well on our way to being the national dump," she said, "and Texas is welcoming it" because "a private company spent $16 million to get the bill they wanted" in the Texas Legislature.

She urged Sierra Club members to call Rep. Buddy West (Odessa) and ask him to vote out of committee Rep. Pete Gallego's proposal to set up a joint interim committee to study the risks of importing radioactive waste into Texas.

Both Fran and Don Dowdey said members could sign up for action alerts at the website, http://www.texas.sierraclub.org/bigbend/index.html.

Don then introduced Dr. Keith Stearnes, of the Sul Ross Biology Dept., who spoke on "Rio Grande, a Changing River System."

Biologists have documented yet another first for the Texas environment, according to Dr. Sternes, who said that the Rio Grande now has the distinction of being at times the dirtiest river in the United States.

In his scientific testing of samples from the full length of the river since 1995, from its headwaters in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Sternes said he documented levels of fecal coliform and fecal streptococci, as well as salmonella and other pathogens, and the antibiotic resistance that appears in the river at certain stages.

Much of his work is now being funded by the Department of Homeland Security, which is seeking to determine what pathogens are normally in the river water, and what resistance is naturally there, so that if unusual pathogens should appear, scientists can alert military and security authorities.

Since the border research is tied to the military budget, he noted that as more bombs are used in Iraq, there is less money for such scientific research. "The fewer bombs in Iraq, the more money we have," he said, adding that recently "there was a big cut (in funds) because bombs needed more funding."

The river's flow in Colorado is "fairly pristine," Dr. Sternes said, partially because the upper part of the river supports considerable water for irrigation, and holding basins for water allow the heavier pathogens to sink to the bottom. But as the river continues toward El Paso and beyond, passing by the old copper smelting Asarco plant there, and for 30miles downstream, the river water is sent directly, instead of from holding basins, to treatment plants, and bacteria levels are high.

Dr. Sternes said he and his students have hundreds of collection points where they can draw water samples along the river's route, and that the U.S. Border Patrol has provided them with escort assistance at many points along the lower river. At San Ygnacio in the lower Rio Grande Valley several deaths have been recorded from bacteria in the river.

In their water sampling, the biologists have found 24 species of enterococcus, a pathogen found in humans, birds and pigs that can cause meningitis and surgical wound infections in hospitals. Dr. Sternes said several of his students at Sul Ross plan to graduate and become veterinary technicians. "I try to train them how to think about what they're doing when they go from one patient to the next," how even a pen touched inadvertently before washing their hands can transfer bacteria from one patient to another.

The samples of enterococcus in the Rio Grande indicates fecal pollution, e. coli, salmonella or vibrio, which can cause cholera, he said.

Part of their research also involves testing which pathogens found in the water are resistant to antibiotics, such as vancomycin. He added that every state surrounding Texas has found chronic wasting disease, but that disease has not gotten into the Rio Grande.

Despite a good waste treatment plant, he said his sampling had discovered "lots of bacteria" in the water from the Albuquerque area. In El Paso the bacteria drops because of high chlorination, and then climbs back up as the river flows south. He said levels of bacteria fluctuate during the year, and that antibiotic resistance is greater around cities, which scientists believe is because of humans but could also be affected by fecal matter from cats and dogs. He said there is little antibiotic resistance in the lower Rio Grande.

Dr. Sternes said his research will be expanded to the Pecos River later this year. He also hopes to work with Mexican researchers and clinicians to identify the bacteria and determine where various species come into the river and how far up they penetrate. "Bacteria don't know that the river is a border," he said.

The bacteria level in rivers increases after floods, "because bacteria like to hang onto the sediment" that is stirred by the increased flow.

The Rio Grande is changing even at its headwaters -- "the number of houses along the upper Rio Grande has probably quadrupled since I've been working along the river," he said.

Asked whether he advised using the Hot Springs in Big Bend National Park, he said "it's okay to dive into the water, but don't drink it." And he said canoeing or rafting in the river is fine, "but if the canoe flips, just don't get cut." The bacteria level is "pretty much the same" where it flows through Big Bend National Park, he said, and he noted that around Lajitas it is "a little cleaner than around Presidio."

Dr. Sternes said anti-bacterial soaps are a particular nemesis, since the bacteria develop resistance to low levels of chemicals.


Pat Dasch, who heads the Rio Grande Research Center, will speak at the next meeting of the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, on May 19 at 7 p.m. in Room 200 of Lawrence Hall on the Sul Ross campus.

Don Dowdey, BBRSC chair, was honored with the Chapter Service Award, presented by Texas Sierra Club chairman Ken Kramer, at a meeting in early April in Austin.