Air Date: Week of July 28, 1995
In a model of international cooperation, high school students on both the United States and Mexico sides of the vast Del Rio river are working together to monitor water quality and track problem areas. Becky Rumsey reports on this unique environmental education program.
NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. The battle over clean water is one of many struggles over environmental policy in Washington. Conservative Republicans and some Democrats want less regulation, reduced funding for agencies charged with ensuring water quality, and more authority for the states. Whatever the outcome, it's clear the trend right now is away from tougher Federal regulation of water quality, and that puts more pressure on states, localities, and private groups to monitor and protect water supplies. Across the country, local groups are responding. This week on Living on Earth, we look at 2 river monitoring projects: one on a small river in rural New England, the other on one of North America's great rivers in the desert Southwest. Both projects involve schoolchildren, linking different regional cultures, and both try to fill what organizers see as a regulatory void. In New Mexico, reporter Becky Rumsey reports from the banks of the Rio Grande.
(Flowing water from the Rio Grande)
(A young man speaks: "...I'm testing the turbidity, how dirty the water is, how many dissolved solids per...")
RUMSEY: Half a mile down in northern New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge, Questa High School student Philip Gallegos fills vials with water.
GALLEGOS: When you have too much turbidity in the water. It's not safe for the animals to live in...
RUMSEY: Gallegos is perched on a rock below volcanic canyon walls 700 feet high. On this day, students in New Mexico, Texas, and 5 Mexican states are conducting about a dozen different water quality tests on their stretches of the Rio Grande. They're measuring things like pH, nitrates, phosphates, and fecal coliform bacterial.
GALLEGOS: So what you do is you fill up this little vial. This thing's like 20, 200 milliliters, I'm not exactly sure. And you get it in the water, you fill it up, and make sure the edges are clean and nice, and you stick it in the turbidimeter. It measures somehow how many particles are suspended in the water.
RUMSEY: Five years ago, Project Del Rio launched its water quality monitoring program with 12 participating high schools. This year, hundreds of students from more than 60 US and Mexican schools are involved.
GALLEGOS: Fifteen point three and 71.8.
RUMSEY: While there are other programs in which students study water quality on rivers around the world. Project Del Rio is unique because it involve students from 2 different countries working together on the same river. Students enter their data into a binational computer network and create a watershed profile of North America's fifth longest river. The results from Questa, just south of the Rio Grande's Colorado headwaters, show a relatively clean, healthy upstream section.
(Sounds of traffic on a highway)
RUMSEY: Four hundred miles downstream, Project Del Rio research tells a different tale. Raoul Yates is a student at El Prepatorio Chamisal in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. His class sampled a cement-lined section of the Rio Grande where it begins to form the international boundary between the US and Mexico.
YATES: We found the water more contaminated than last year. We found more bacteria from coliform, fecal coliform. It wasn't countable. We couldn't count all the bacteria. And also we found, from the US side, water dumping. It had a lot of, like, soap.
(Sound of applause. A woman speaks in Spanish.)
RUMSEY: Yates was one of several hundred students to attend Project Del Rio's congress in El Paso-Juarez, this year. There, students shared results and learned what they could do to increase public awareness and protection of water quality. Patricia Martinez-Tellez is Project Del Rio's Mexican coordinator.
TELLEZ: One of the high schools in the lower Rio Grande found fecal coliform there, so they put field data and they took precautions, and we're glad for that, you know? There's people that want to do more things and participate more in the community.
RUMSEY: To do that, Project Del Rio organizes workshops at its congresses that pair students with media and science professionals. Professionals like Sergio Mendez of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, who spent an afternoon showing Project Del Rio students pollution from urban runoff.
RUMSEY: Standing at the Franklin Canal, where the Rio Grande is divided between Mexican and US interests, Mendez says water quality problems here include chemical residues from stonewashed jean factories, fertilizers and pesticides on the US side, and on the Mexican side, high levels of bacteria from untreated sewage.
MENDEZ: I think Project Del Rio is a good thing because they are working with students from both sides of the Rio Grande, from Mexican and the US side. Like, most of the students on the US side don't know that some of these kids don't even have water, good drinking water.
RUMSEY: Mendez says that while El Paso has 8 water treatment plants for half a million people, Juarez has 3 times that population and no wastewater treatment facilities. In addition, many people in Juarez don't even have plumbing. They depend on the Rio Grande for drinking and bathing, and for some the river is also a source of food, often contaminated carp and catfish.
(People speaking at a gathering, ambient conversation.)
RUMSEY: At the congress, teachers say they like Project Del Rio because it gets kids involved in these kinds of real world environmental issues.
(A woman speaks in Spanish)
RUMSEY: Science teacher Berta Libastrilla of El Prepatorio Chamisal in Juarez uses Project Del Rio to give her students first-hand experience with challenges they'll face as adults. All her students plan to pursue careers in chemistry, biology, or medicine. But Libastrilla doesn't expect Project Del Rio to solve any problems immediately. Like other parts of the region, communities in the Rio Grande watershed are booming. By the year 2,000 some 5 million people will live in the 10 largest cities along the Rio Grande. All of them depend on the river or its aquifers for water. That's why programs that emphasize a watershed perspective, without artificial or political boundaries, are so important, says Project Del Rio coordinator Patricia Martinez-Tellez.
TELLEZ: The 2 countries are working together. Through the students. That is fantastic. That is great. And we were doing this the last 5 years. Five years, you know, is like a little embassy of good faith and people worried about the environment.
RUMSEY: Project Del Rio's 2 staff people face constant fundraising and technical challenges. In Mexico's foundering economy, many teachers have to work several jobs. And while most US high schools have computers and access to good telephone lines, that's not the case south of the border.
(Young man's voice: "So we're reading so far, 13.9, 15.3, and 71.8...")
RUMSEY: But the number of schools involved in Project Del Rio grows every year. Recently it won several prestigious environmental education awards as a model of participatory learning and action-oriented research. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey.
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