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Cane Eradication Funds Lost in Political Thicket

Carrizo cane sprouts along the banks of the Rio Grande, providing easy cover for smugglers and drug mules. A new state law says it should be eradicated, but lawmakers neglected to set aside any money for razing cane.

Carrizo cane (Arundo donax).

An invasive plant growing along the banks of the Rio Grande, Carrizo cane is the bane of border law enforcement, providing natural cover for smugglers and drug mules. There have been efforts to wipe it out since at least 2008, when the U.S. Border Patrol tried a pilot program in southern Webb County that was suspended after environmental groups objected to the herbicides being used.

And despite a bill passed last session requiring its eradication, it doesn't appear Texas will raze cane anytime soon.

Senate Bill 1734 by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, mandated that the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board establish a plan to eradicate Carrizo cane. 

The project was included on Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of border security priorities, and his proposed budget included $9.8 million for it. But even though Uresti’s bill went into effect when Abbott signed it in June, the state conservation agency hasn’t moved beyond preliminary planning stages.

When lawmakers allocated a record $800 million for border security, it seems, they left out the money needed to fund the eradication program.

“We’re doing whatever we can do without any funding,” said John Foster, the conservation agency's statewide programs officer. “The thing that changed with the bill is it added ‘border security’ to our sweep of responsibilities.”

Asked about the lack of funding, Abbott’s office said only that it would continue to monitor the eradication effort.

"Securing the border is inherently a federal responsibility and we will continue to work with our federal and local partners to address this issue," spokesperson John Wittman said.

According to a review of emails obtained by The Texas Tribune, Abbott’s office concluded that state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, decided against funding the program. (Nelson and state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, were the two votes against SB 1734, according to the Senate journal.)

Asked about the bill, Nelson said “this issue simply didn't have the support to be funded."

Foster said he isn’t surprised the program wasn’t funded given the somewhat haphazard process required to get the legislation passed. He was approached late in the session, he said, and the costs associated with the project were never fully explored.

“We were going basically just on some rough numbers that had been around for a few years since this first started being talked about since '07 or '08,” he said. “That ($9.8 million) number was based on something like $200 an acre for one particular method and then the length of the river, essentially. Obviously there’s not Carrizo cane everywhere on the river. There was never a formal request by the agency. We obviously would take anything we could to get the program started.”

In a statement, Uresti said he expected the agency to move forward if funds for the program are identified. Until then, he said, it’s up to locals to get the job done.

“Next session, I will once again work with my colleagues on Senate Finance to see that this program is funded,” he said. “For now, the eradication responsibilities are being borne by landowners and local authorities, but the scope of the problem makes state assistance important."

Foster said there has been some progress made despite the lack of funding. He met earlier this month with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which identified “priority” areas where cane is the most problematic. He said he would meet again soon with Abbott’s office to discuss possible sources.

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Courts Criminal justice Demographics Immigration Politics State government Border Greg Abbott State agencies Texas Legislature