Home page Alert Sierra Club Books Committee Members Meetings Membership Minutes Newsletter Related Sites Volunteer Contact Us

Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Regular Public Meeting May 19, 2005

Minutes of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club, May 19, 2005

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

Fran summarized the current state of various environmental bills in the Legislature, which was not very hopeful.

Both Fran and Don Dowdey said members could sign up for action alerts at the website, http://www.texas.sierraclub.org/bigbend/index.html, and encouraged folks to do so for the final push of the session.

Don then introduced our speaker, Pat Dasch.

Water in the Rio Grande and how to sustain it is the focus of a new research center at Sul Ross State University that Pat Dasch, research administrator for the Rio Grande Research Center, said will, hopefully grow to include research data and cooperation from Mexico and be eligible for United Nations funding.

Mrs. Dasch, the wife of SRSU alumnus Julius Dasch, who retired from NASA in 2003, spoke to the Big Bend Regional Sierra Club at its May 19 meeting at the university. Mrs. Dasch also worked at NASA and has written several books, the most recent being Icy Worlds of the Solar System, which was nominated for the 2005 Aventis Prize.

Water research from Texas and New Mexico universities on the Rio Grande from its source in Colorado to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico is already being collected and organized at the Center, she said, "and we also look to bring in research on the Mexican side of the border."

"We haven't answered 30 percent of the problem unless you get Mexico involved," she explained.

The research center was set up at SRSU after the 2004 Congress voted funds for research in the area, in response to Rep. Henry Bonilla's urging and the emotional debate that erupted after Rio Nuevo's plans to buy land from the Texas General Land Office in order to drill out and sell the water underneath.

It became clear, she said, that "we don't have good scientific data about water in our area," which is "traditionally an underpopulated region." "Compared with many areas, there's very little water data," she said.

Grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came through in the fall of 2004 and the research center was set up in November, thereby missing fieldwork for the 2004 summer season, she said. Dr. Kevin Urbanszyk has been named to head the Research Center and extensive fieldwork is planned for the 2005 summer. Funding of $1.7 million is expected for the first year, a similar amount for a second year, and a guarantee of a third year for the project.

She added that the project is expected to bring in funds from other sources as well. The project already has 19 research projects up and running at 5 universities in the Texas State University System with three of the research projects based at Sul Ross.

The entire Texas university system is involved, and a group at UT Austin is studying the 'forgotten reach of the Rio Grande" north of Presidio through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Groundwater measurement and chemistry is one of the projects being directed by Dr. Urbanszyk at SRSU, she added.

Other projects include a well-monitoring aquifer study at Texas State in San Marcos; another group at Texas State is examining selected springs in the Trans-Pecos area, including testing those that are newly active for water quality.

Dr. Keith Sternes, who spoke to the Sierra Club last month, is tracking pathogens for the full length of the Rio Grande and now its tributaries as well, she said.

Further, she is talking to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute about an educational project that could involve school students in collecting water samples on Rio Grande tributaries, "so they can develop a better understanding of scientific methods and water issues in the region."

Other projects include research at Lake Amistad and work on airborne pollutants by a group from Lamar University. Other groups are studying water pollution and how to treat water for reuse. Still others are trying techniques to remove arsenic from the water.

Bonnie Warnock of SRSU has a biology study along Terlingua Creek that involves finding out whether removal of mesquites "gets more water to the river -- but then in the Fall of 2004 we got 30 inches of rain at the study area, so there's no way (yet) to tell whether her treatments got more water to the river."

Groups from Angelo State are doing small mammal counts with follow-up studies -- "it always amazes us how quickly the mammal count can change after the water situation changes."

Still other studies involve the effects of major population developments (urban sprawl) on the environment.

The research center also is involved in data management -- identifying all the organization that have undertaken relevant research on the Rio Grande -- and working to amalgamate this data at a single point. "We want first to collect the data, then develop a clearing house and make it available to the people who need it."

Mrs. Dasch said remote sensing projects with satellite imagery will be important for the Research Center and that aerial imagery will be used as well. "My hope is that we can be a path-burner in developing these technologies that we can share with other people."

The Rio Grande Research Center has its offices at Centennial School, and its website is www.sulross.edu/pages/4624.asp.

Among the major questions being asked by the center are: how to quantify the amount of water available, and predict its future availability; a better understanding of recharge issues for bolsons and wells; are igneous aquifers linked; what is the quality of water and what pathogens are present (this is Dr. Sternes' project, of particular interest to the Department of Homeland Security); measures of water efficiency for private, public and agricultural use; to what extent can water be recycled and reused; the scope and extent of historic and current research on Rio Grande basin water resources; how to help the region plan for sustainability.

The Research Center's future funding will likely depend on long-term issues and convincing politicians in Washington and USDA officials that SRSU is the center of a unique area with unique water problems. In terms of initiating a trans-boundary study of the Rio Grande Basin she said the United Nations "has experience in doing this," but working with the U.N. takes careful planning. "We are possibly far enough along to involve people from the U.S. and Mexico in a stakeholders discussion at some point in the next 12 months, to determine what issues should be the focus of any international approach to Rio Grande sustainability issued. After that, the follow on steps would be to develop a strategic action plan and possibly identify test demonstration projects. She said significant amounts of money are involved in such international United Nations projects, "several milllion dollars for initial phases, then up to 50 million dollars towards execution of an action plan."

"As we understand it, the key to success for the Rio Grande Research Center is that we have to be an asset to the community...meet local needs... solicit input from the community."

At the end of her talk, a comment was made that local input was likely to be negative from private landholders when the United Nations is mentioned.

Announcements   Don Dowdey, BBRSC president, said the next meeting of Big Bend Regional Sierra Club will be its summer social, to be held in August.