After sitting dormant for nearly a year for lack of funding, a border security project aimed at ridding the banks of the Rio Grande of an invasive plant that hides smugglers is finally sprouting roots.
But fearing that herbicides used for the project will pollute the river, the primary water source for several border communities, an environmental group is planning a full-fledged effort to halt the plan and is recruiting local governments to join its side.
Signed in June, Senate Bill 1734 by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, directed the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board to create a plan to eradicate Carrizo cane, which can grow up to 30 feet tall on the river banks and area floodplains. The project was listed on Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of border security priorities, and his proposed budget included $9.8 million for it.
Budget writers didn’t fund the effort, however, and project coordinators at the conservation board couldn’t do much more than plan.
Last month, state leaders decided to transfer $500,000 from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to cover a pilot eradication project. The plan calls for using a combination of mechanical, biological and chemical methods, which Uresti’s office said are safe.
“The herbicides involved have been approved and re-approved by the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] who has deemed them safe for use, and they have a long history of success in salt cedar eradications across Texas,” said aide Michael Ruggieri.
It’s not the first time the issue has stirred controversy. The U.S. Border Patrol tried a pilot program in southern Webb County that was suspended in 2009 after environmental groups objected. According to a settlement reached that year between a coalition of Webb County residents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there is to be no aerial spraying in the 16-mile area where the initial pilot program was conducted.
It’s still unclear what the state’s project will entail, or if the $500,000 will be a one-time allotment. Tom Harvey, a parks department spokesman, said an interagency contract isn’t complete. A program manager for the TSSWCB did not return calls seeking comment.
But a lack of details isn’t stopping the Laredo-based Rio Grande International Study Center from spearheading the fight against the new program.
“Maybe Uresti, the governor, and the folks at the conservation board in Austin think that it’s OK to push ahead with aerial spraying because they don’t live here and don’t have to drink the Rio Grande tap water,” Tricia Cortez, the center’s executive director, wrote in an opinion piece published by the Austin American-Statesman last month.
It’s not that the group likes the plant. It agrees the invasive species sucks up much-needed water from the river while hindering efforts to patrol the banks. It’s the method under consideration that the group opposes, Cortez insists.
She points to a seven-year project by the USDA that uses a combination of cane-eating wasps and a cane-topping method with specialty tractors to stunt the Carrizo’s growth.
“The most important question is why has the state chosen to ignore the incredible work being done by the USDA along a 558-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, from Del Rio to Brownsville?” she wrote. “Results from the past seven years — which have been peer reviewed and published — show a dwindling of the cane’s biomass by nearly 25 percent.”
Abbott’s office said the directive to the conservation board isn’t different from what the agency does on a regular basis.
“They will do this just as they always have has done — with their Water Supply Enhancement Program — reducing a variety of water-hogging plants all over the state,” spokesman John Wittman said. “And just like they routinely do, the agency will utilize eradication methods that fully comply with the federal government’s exhaustive regulatory standards.”
Uresti’s office is quick to mention that the program is voluntary for landowners, that the state’s efforts won't focus on Webb County and that the bill was unopposed by area lawmakers last session.
“SB 1734 was supported by the USDA, the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Seed Trade Association, the Texas Conservation Association for Soil & Water, and every single border lawmaker in both the House and the Senate,” said Ruggieri.
Cortez's group isn't convinced.
Its most recent victories came when the Laredo city council and the Webb County Commissioners Court last week passed resolutions opposing any aerial spraying along the river during the eradication effort. Cortez said she expects communities up and downriver from Laredo to follow suit before too long.