The Great River becomes a great sewer
"I'd guess maybe 20 yards across," offered Rogers, tugging at his Texas Aggies ball cap. The Rio Grande, here some 50 miles downstream of the El Paso/Juarez metropolis, was barely a foot deep where it wasn't dry altogether.
"Down here," observed Rogers' science teacher, Ted Woodruff, "the Rio Grande is a bit of a misnomer." And, he added, without disagreement from his lively class, "a bit of a cesspool at times."
Last month Woodruff and seven students joined some 60 other high school science classes in Texas, Mexico and New Mexico - over 2,000 students - in testing the quality of the Rio Grande along a 1,500-mile course from the high sierra of northern New Mexico, near Taos, to its demise at the Gulf of Mexico.
It was the fourth year for the binational effort called Project del Rio. The Santa Fe-based program monitors the river three times each spring in one of the largest mass testings of a river in the world. What the students found was pretty dismal.
The Rio Grande, listed last year as the country's most imperiled river by the conservation group American Rivers, is fouled by nitrates, phosphates and "off the scale" pH levels in many areas. Human and animal wastes along much of the Mexican border make any skin contact with the river dangerous.
"To be honest," said Project del Rio's normally upbeat director, Lisa LaRocque, "I don't see anything comforting about the results. The good news is that the students produced their best data ever."
The river's worst health problem continues to be high levels of fecal coliform. While not pathogenic, fecal coliform often indicate the presence of organisms that carry hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid and cholera. Raw sewage in the river has been a problem for many years because the largest cities on the Mexican side have antiquated sewage treatment plants, or none. In Nuevo Laredo, where officials say the city's first sewage treatment plant is at least a year from completion, about 70 percent of its half-million people flush their wastes directly into the Rio Grande.
"Some parts of the river are so dirty," says Project del Rio's U.S. coordinator, Craig Heacock, "that it's not a good idea to have the students test it. In those cases they sometimes pay the coyotes (men who ferry people across the border illegally) to get a water sample for them."
Dr. Laurance Nickey, director of the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District, says Juarez officials have told him 55 million gallons of raw sewage and industrial pollutants leave the city of 2 million each day.
"They discharge it into irrigation canals that parallel the Rio Grande for 18 miles and serve some 60,000 acres of farmland," Nickey says. "When it's not used for irrigation, the canals are rediverted into the Rio Grande - in fact, a few miles upstream of Fort Hancock."
The reason those Fort Hancock students see such a meager river much of the year is that the vast majority of the Rio Grande is given to agriculture through irrigation canals. But on the Mexican side below Juarez, those irrigation canals - called the aguas negras, or black waters - are also the avenues of disease.
Dr. Nickey, who like many older El Pasoans swam and fished in the river as a child, says that in 1992 the rates of hepatitis A and dysentery doubled and tripled, respectively, in El Paso County. Several cholera cases were reported on the Mexican side two years ago, and on the day the students tested last month, the El Paso newspapers were reporting a case of polio in Juarez - the first in three years.
More than just a well-intentioned science program, Project del Rio has won support from industry, government and community groups for its reliability. The non-profit project is funded largely by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA's Mexican counterpart, known as SEDESOL, U.S. and Mexican corporations along the border and the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation.
Despite its non-partisan approach, Project del Rio's test results inevitably take on a political context. Some opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement say the river's condition indicates how unprepared Mexico is for massive industrialization. Ironically, some of Project del Rio's sponsors, among which are chemical firms, auto makers, waste haulers, pharmaceutical companies and a steel mill, represent industries that have been among the border's worst polluters.
LaRoque, a former Peace Corps worker with a master's degree in environmental education from the University of Michigan, concedes that because the students are not testing for substances like solvents, pesticides and heavy metals, the companies have little fear of being singled out as polluters.
"I applaud the Project del Rio students," Nickey says, "but I'm very concerned about our river. If the U.S. government can give hundreds of millions of dollars to Afghanistan and all the other "stans," why in heaven's name can't they give Mexico some sewage treatment plants?
"I just hope," pleads Nickey, "that the students' findings will raise the consciousness of those people who live along another river - the Potomac."
Lisa LaRocque can be reached at Project del Rio, 1345 Camino de los Lopez, Suite B., Santa Fe, NM 87505 (505/471-7788).
* Bruce Selcraig
The writer lives and writes in Austin, Texas.