Chartered by the state of Texas in 1994, RGISC’s overarching goal is to act as a change agent and steward for the preservation and restoration of the environment of the Rio Grande Basin.
RGISC (pronounced risk) pursues these goals through independent research, community education, and partnerships with governmental, educational, nonprofit and business entities on both sides of the Rio Grande.
RGISC was founded in response to growing concerns about the quality of the water supplied to the communities of the lower Rio Grande basin, and to study and provide science-based solutions to preserve the Rio Grande and its environmental heritage.
The Rio Grande-Rio Bravo continues to rank as one of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
RGISC, meanwhile, has moved more strongly into public advocacy for endangered local ecosystems and habitats.
“A Brief History of the Rio Grande International Study Center”
Dr. Jim Earhart, RGISC co-founder and former executive director:
June 30, 2012
Although located in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world the Rio Grande International Study Center, chartered in Laredo, Texas on January 25, 1994, is not wealthy in material holdings nor is it imbued with special powers granted by federal, state, or local governments; but this young and growing organization is wealthy in ideas that initiate actions to make Laredo, Nuevo Laredo, and the world better places in which to live. RGISC is a concept, a way of thinking, a catalyst for bringing about change for the better in educational, governmental, and industrial institutions.
RGISC is a grassroots organization. The RGISC that you are experiencing today began to coalesce toward the end of the 1980’s, not as a defined environmental organization, but as a small cluster of people who began to realize that something was dreadfully wrong with the Rio Grande—the Mother that bore and nurtured their city. She was ill.
They saw bottles and cans floating in her waters while plastic bags and baby diapers covered the rocks and soil over which her waters flowed. Large chunks of fecal material drifted lazily from side creeks into her main stream where they were consumed by hungry carp fish waiting for a meal. Aguas negras formed as untreated municipal sewage flowed into her life giving waters creating bacterial populations too numerous to count.
Streams in Laredo were systematically channeled, their water filtering vegetation destroyed in an effort to move rain water hastily from city streets. Torrents of silt and debris laden water flowed into the river taking with it pollutants from commercial and residential areas.
Long before the organization was given a name and formalized a very small group—comprised of average workers, teachers, and highly skilled professionals—began to raise questions. What might be done to create community awareness of the problem and to stimulate governmental actions to help the Rio Grande recover from her degraded condition? How could the river be saved from a growing population and governmental inattention? How could people be made aware of the river’s importance to their health and economic well-being? How could they be challenged to take the responsible actions required to make a difference?
In the early 1990’s increasing numbers of citizens from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo began to meet in more formal settings to discuss problems with the Rio Grande. These folks began to take action.
Where others saw the abandoned Texas-Israeli Exchange Farm buildings on the LCC Campus as derelict and ready to be demolished, these visionaries saw these buildings of straw as an opportunity to change the community. These environmental pioneers with volunteer efforts and their own financial resources began to convert the straw baled buildings into a place where kids could come and learn about the Rio Grande and its importance to their lives. They set up folding tables and donated home aquariums and terrariums to exhibit plants and animals that inhabit the Rio Grande watershed. That homemade facility, created in the rough by volunteers, is now a first-class environmental facility on the LCC Campus, the Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center.
There was a flurry of RGISC activities in the mid 1990’s with numerous individuals giving of their time and personal resources. Students and faculty began to construct a trail along the riverbank on the LCC Campus in an attempt to convert what had become a no-mans-land into a place where citizens could get to know the river—a place where they could think about it, enjoy it, and learn to take the actions necessary to keep it from being further degraded and to restore it to good health. That nature trail, Laredo’s first, is the Paso del Indio.
A Laredo attorney who believed in the RGISC mission facilitated the incorporation of the Rio Grande International Study Center in 1994. The organization became a legal corporate being, a 501C3 non-profit entity eligible to receive governmental and corporate funding.
Soon after incorporation the same attorney facilitated a half million dollar grant from the Lamar Bruni Vergara Foundation to begin construction on the LBVESC on the LCC Campus. RGISC had served in its role as catalyst in getting a river study center embedded in the security of a sound educational institution.
After incorporation, the RGISC board hired its first Executive Director with the intellect and energy to set the newly chartered organization on its way to success. She obtained RGISC’s first major grant of $56,000 from the Meadow’s Foundation as well as significant funding from the City of Laredo, Webb County, and Zapata County. Under this director RGISC was awarded the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in 1995. Prior to incorporation RGISC researchers, in cooperation with the City of Laredo, The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, and the International Boundary and Water Commission, had monitored water quality in the Rio Grande in and outside the city limits of Laredo. RGISC research was financially supported by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission now the TCEQ. RGISC river water quality monitoring continues to this day.
Two RGISC members served on the committee that produced the City of Laredo’s first Hazard Materials Ordinance. The RGISC Executive Director chaired this committee and another RGISC board member served on it. Out of this committee was spawned the idea for creating the City of Laredo Environmental Services Department and the Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC).
RGISC has been and continues to be ready to take legal action in the interest of the environment. In 1998 RGISC joined a lawsuit against the U. S. government to prevent river bank destruction on the Laredo Community College Campus. RGISC’s involvement in that suit brought front page attention in the Laredo Morning Times, Associated Press and other newspapers throughout the country. Members from the Laredo business community joined forces with RGISC providing financial support for legal action. That suit educated the public and increased community awareness of the effects of soil destabilization and erosion on water quality.
In 2008, the Rio Grande International Study Center was instrumental in preventing the destruction of a 20-acre wetland adjacent to Casa Blanca International State Park. RGISC mounted a media and grass-roots campaign against the filling of the pond and its feeder stream. This area is very important for maintaining water quality and for providing a green space near the state park for residents who have few other places to enjoy nature.
The organization and its volunteers accumulated 13,000 signatures petitioning the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the 404 permit required to destroy the wetland. A weekly Sunday-evening vigil along Bob Bullock Loop next to the property drew strong support from citizens. Although the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers eventually granted the permit for the destruction, the developer withdrew its application for a building permit, citing economic conditions. Had it not been for RGISC’s delaying tactics the wetland would have been destroyed in the first phases of the project. The wetland remains intact, and the huge mound of dirt once destined to fill it still looms on the landscape. This destruction could still happen and RGISC continues to monitor this situation.
In 2009 RGISC worked with residents of a Laredo neighborhood, Barrio de Colores, to prevent aerial spraying of the chemical Imazapyr in close proximity to their homes. Represented by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid these citizens were victorious. RGISC continues to monitor governmental actions that may result in the aerial spraying of herbicides along the river. RGISC and South Texas Environmental Education Research (STEER) were founded about the same time and these two organizations have worked together all these years to provide students in medically related fields with education in border environmental problems. The Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded RGISC a grant to revive the Día del Río observances throughout the Río Grande watershed in 2010. This very successful program involved schools in the U. S. and Mexico in river monitoring and developing a week-long series of presentations, cultural events and cleanup projects to celebrate the importance of the Rio Grande.
A National Science Foundation grant in 1998 – 2001 funded the creation of the River Curriculum learning community, a program implemented through Laredo Community College and Texas A&M International University that trains future educators in teaching environmental science through an integrated, interdisciplinary approach. Projects such as this enrich environmental teaching and learning in the community. RGISC initiated the concept of the Green Space Preservation Ordinance and worked for years to get it adopted by the Laredo City Council in 2004. This ordinance has helped to preserve vegetated stream buffers that would have otherwise been destroyed. In 2004 RGISC began an initiative to reduce solid waste by limiting the use of plastic bags by grocery stores and other retail merchants. Although an ordinance has not yet been adopted by the city council public awareness of the problem has increased and major chains such as HEB and Wal-Mart now provide reusable bags for Laredo customers at minimal cost.
Research with the giant river cane demonstrated that sheep, goats and donkeys can effectively control this invasive species that uses copious quantities of valuable water and blocks the vision of the U. S. Border Patrol as they attempt to do their work. In the past three years, the Rio Grande International Study Center has moved more strongly into public advocacy for endangered ecosystems and habitats and has moved beyond its original two-county area of interest to focus on the entire Río Grande/Río Bravo watershed.
RGISC continues to monitor the Anzon antimony smelter site along Manadas Creek. Evidence suggests it as a source of heavy metal contamination in the river. Protecting a rare colony of beavers (Castor canadensis) on Manadas Creek and creating a board walk to educate the public about this Rio Grande mammal species continues to be a goal of RGISC. RGISC has also taken a public stand and actions on the loss of water through inter-basin transfer in which water from the Rio Grande is piped to cities in other watersheds. Also much work has been done on the heavy water usage by the oil shale fracking activity used to access deep deposits of oil.
The writings here are but a part of RGISC’s rich history. These historical experiences have been learning experiences. They are foundational for the future of the organization as it serves the greater community of the Rio Grande Watershed. Under the expert leadership of RGISC’s very capable Executive Director, competent Board of Directors, dedicated volunteers, and corporate sponsors the future of the organization is very bright.
Many of you here at the annual meeting are part of the RGISC history and you know what this organization has done. For those of you who are new to RGISC we invite you to become a part of the organization and work with us to make life better for you and your offspring.
The river and its environment belong to all of us. We should give it the care that is due a highly prized possession.
Rio Grande International Study Center 1 West End Washington St. Bldg P-11, Laredo, Texas