Arroyo Colorado cleanup efforts paying off

Public asked for input on phase two update

WESLACO –  The award-winning cleanup efforts to help revitalize a highly polluted yet very important waterway in South Texas are entering their second phase, and state officials want public input as they begin updating the Arroyo Colorado Watershed Protection Plan, according to the program coordinator.

Wild nilgai gather on the horizon near the Arroyo Colorado in South Texas (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Wild nilgai gather on the horizon near the Arroyo Colorado in South Texas (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Jaime Flores, the Arroyo Colorado watershed coordinator with the Texas Water Resources Institute in Weslaco, said that phase one of the state’s first watershed protection plan is coming to a close, and cleanup efforts through 2020 and beyond need to be defined.

“We need to update the Arroyo Colorado Watershed Protection Plan, which was intended to guide implementation efforts through 2012,” he said. “There was so much to do, we couldn’t get everything into the first plan. We want stakeholders, which includes the general public, to assess our original plan and help us determine how our future efforts should evolve.”

Flores also coordinates the activities of the Arroyo Colorado Watershed Partnership, a group of 700 people, representing federal, state and private organizations working to improve watershed health, integrate management and seek out watershed project funding.

Last year, the water institute and the partnership won the Texas Environmental Excellence Award for its achievements in environmental preservation and protection. The award is presented annually by the governor of Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

When the first plan started in 2007, the Arroyo Colorado was too important and too polluted to ignore, Flores said.

If the Rio Grande is the faucet, or water source, for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the Arroyo Colorado is its all-important drain, Flores said. It runs somewhat parallel to the Rio Grande for almost 90 miles, collecting floodwater and wastewater from agriculture, industry, and an expanding population, before dumping it all into the Lower Laguna Madre, a pristine bay adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.

It is the major source of freshwater for the bay and becomes an estuary in the tidal segment that serves as a natural nursery for many fish, crab and shrimp species.

But for all its good work, the Arroyo Colorado had become one of the state’s worst polluted waterways when the water institute took on the task of evaluating its condition and coordinating a cleanup in 1998. The institute is a unit of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“The Arroyo Colorado has been a hardworking, faithful workhorse of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but it’s paid the price,” Flores said. “It did so much for so many people for so long that it eventually became highly polluted. We knew we had to do something to try and clean it up, but where do we start?”

The arroyo’s watershed covers most of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties, Flores said. The area is home to 1 million or so people, most of who were not around when the bulk of the area’s infrastructure was constructed.

“The Valley started out a century ago as a string of farms,” he said. “Roads, a railroad and a port were constructed to move agricultural necessities and agricultural products into and out of the area. A huge population wasn’t part of the equation back then.”

As cities sprang up around the agricultural industry, town sites constructed crude wastewater treatment facilities called “lagoonal” type systems that contributed to the Arroyo Colorado’s pollution.

“They did a poor job of handling waste,” he said. “When storms dumped rain or cut off power, sewage went everywhere. That effluent ended up in the Arroyo. And until recently, these antiquated systems were still in use.”

As part of the cleanup plan, since 2007, seven Valley cities have invested nearly $68 million in upgrading or building new wastewater facilities, including the installation of tertiary wetland treatment systems.

“The infrastructure is catching up to the population growth,” Flores said. “Today, skilled city employees are now operating these systems. Engineers are communicating with each other. These new facilities have emergency power generators and are equipped with safety mechanisms, all to ensure that wastewater is being properly treated at all times so that raw sewage doesn’t end up in the Arroyo Colorado.”

Funds for the improvements, Flores said, came from various sources, including state and federal grants, and “wherever they could find the money.”

Another phase of the watershed protection plan encouraged and assisted municipalities in using treated wastewater, or “reuse” water, to irrigate city-owned landscaping, parks, sports complexes and golf courses.

“So far, eight cities are now using close to 2 billion gallons of reuse water every year instead of potable water,” he said. “By the time the city of McAllen completes their project, that amount will climb to almost 3 billion gallons.”

Other efforts to reduce pollution include improved storm drains and farmers’ commitment to best management practices that reduce the amount of nutrients and chemicals that find their way to the Arroyo Colorado.

“Education and outreach are also important,” Flores said. “More and more cities are now holding their own Earth Days and Arbor Days to improve our environment and encourage recycling and properly disposing of used oil and trash. It’s more difficult to build colonias now without the proper infrastructure. All these efforts help clean up the Arroyo.”

So, what condition is the Arroyo Colorado in now?

“The water is constantly being analyzed and people can keep up with this data on our website,” Flores said. “And so far data shows that while pollutants haven’t decreased, they are no longer increasing. It’s leveled off. But the fight has just begun; there’s a lot more work to do and we need public input on how to go about that.”

To become a member of the Arroyo Colorado Watershed Partnership or to get information on their next meeting, go to http://arroyocolorado.org or contact Flores at 956-968-5581.

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