FORT HANCOCK, Texas - Red-headed Jimmy Frank Rogers, a junior and an agile receiver on Fort Hancock High's six-man football team (school enrollment: 102), straddled some spindly salt cedar on the steep banks of the Rio Grande and surveyed what was once the Great River.
"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
"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
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
"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."
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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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
"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?
just hope," pleads Nickey, "that the students' findings will raise
the consciousness of those people who live along another river -
Lisa LaRocque can be reached at
Project del Rio, 1345 Camino de los Lopez, Suite B., Santa Fe, NM
The writer lives and
writes in Austin, Texas.