McALLEN, RGV – The recent fish kill in the Rio Grande led to fears the river had been contaminated, which in turn led to Valley residents rushing to the stores to bulk buy bottled water.

Jim Darling, president of the Rio Grande Regional Water Authority, believes there was unnecessary panic and that there was not enough timely and accurate information provided to the public. However, he also feels the incident should serve as a wake-up call for the Valley.

“What if the tests had shown there was contamination in the river? What would we have done? We do not have an emergency plan in place and we need to have one,” said Darling, who also serves as mayor of McAllen.

Darling has asked Joe Barrera, executive director of the RGRWA, and Julian Alvarez, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, to set up a roundtable meeting involving key stakeholders so that a Rio Grande Contamination Emergency Plan can be formulated. The roundtable is expected to be held at the Partnership’s offices in Weslaco early next month.

Key stakeholders, Darling said, should include the International Boundary and Water Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Mexican Consulate’s Office. “Don’t forget, the quality of the water in the Rio Grande is just as important to Reynosa as it is to McAllen. We need the Mexican Consulate’s Office to be involved,” Darling said.

Rio Grande Regional Water Authority Executive Director Joe Barrera, President Jim Darling and Vice President Sonia Lambert.
Rio Grande Regional Water Authority Executive Director Joe Barrera, President Jim Darling and Vice President Sonia Lambert.

News about a fish kill first appeared in a small newspaper in Mexico. Early reports said Pemex, the Mexican oil company, was responsible for discharging contaminated substances into the Rio Salado. This turned out to be inaccurate.

Concern was first raised by CILA, Mexico’s counterpart to the IBWC. CILA reported that a “bad” material was released from a Pemex facility in Mexico. “They do not know what the material is or the quantity released, but it went into the Rio Salado and is headed towards the Rio Grande near Zapata,” said an April 30 email from TCEQ to irrigation district managers in the Valley. The email was sent by Amy Settemeyer, watermaster section manager at TCEQ.

“IBWC estimates approximately four days for it to reach the Rio Grande,” Settemeyer went on to say. “TCEQ staff contacted IBWC and learned that a fish kill occurred around April 8 in Mexico about 90 miles upstream of the Border. IBWC staff provided several Mexican news articles. Based upon the articles it appears the substance may have impacted Falcon reservoir yesterday.”

Settemeyer’s email said CILA did some initial testing, which was not conclusive. The email said IBWC would be conducting further sampling at the confluence of the Rio Salado and Falcon Lake, as well as upstream and downstream. TCEQ said it was coordinating with IBWC to have samples analyzed in an “expedited manner.” However, TCEQ warned that some of the results would take at least five days to come through.

“At this time we do not know what the substance is or its source. IBWC staff indicated there has been no further fish kills reported downstream,” Settemeyer added. She said EPA is moving forward on implementing the Joint Contingency Plan, which would mean formal notification between the U.S. and Mexico and an entry into the National Response Center.”

TCEQ issued its final notice on the fish kill incident on May 8. It said: “Water testing results from the broad spectrum analysis performed in response to the reported spill and fish kill in the Rio Salado in Mexico indicate Lower Rio Grande Valley drinking water from the Rio Grande is safe.”

TCEQ said surface water samples were collected from Falcon Reservoir and analyzed for a broad spectrum of pollutants (70 chemicals), including pesticides, petroleum-related chemicals, metals and other water quality parameters. “Based on these data, there is no indication of water quality concerns,” TCEQ said. “There were no organic pollutants such as pesticides or petroleum-related chemicals detected in any of the samples. In fact, the vast majority of chemicals were not detected, and the few detected were measured at levels safe for human consumption.”

TCEQ said the metals lead, arsenic and mercury were measured at very low levels in some of the samples. “However, these levels were below federal drinking water standards and are safe for drinking water, even in finished drinking water.” Additionally, TCEQ said, the lead and arsenic levels detected were “within the ranges” historically found in surface water in Falcon Reservoir. “Mercury was not detected in 5 of 6 samples, and while Falcon Reservoir data are not available for comparison, the one detected concentration is below the federal drinking water standard and within the range historically found in the Rio Grande.”

Mayor Darling said a number of lessons can be learned from the Rio Salado fish kill incident. One is that the media needs to be better informed so that it can get timely and accurate information out to the general public. “We do not want a mad panic. I would like to see the media partner with us at this roundtable,” Darling said.

Darling went on to say: “The solution to pollution is dilution. What strength would it take for contaminated water to get through Falcon before it affects communities down river? We have a lot of stuff being dumped in the river between Falcon and us on the Mexican side, such as raw sewage. I have been preaching for a long time about the quality of the river and the river as a delivery system, aquatic weeds; invasive species. It is time for us to say, you know what, we need to really pay attention.”

Darling said it is clear the Valley needs an emergency plan, in case the Rio Grande does get contaminated.

“The first thing we need is a reporting process. We have a reporting process for salt coming out of El Morillo Drain. There are gauges along the river that tell the farmer that if the water gets above 1,200 parts per million, don’t be irrigating. That is in place. We need to build upon that,” Darling said.

“We could have a staging system in place so that when we know a contaminated release has happened we can prepare. We have seven days before water released from Falcon gets to McAllen. If it is reported, you have time to do things, like fill up your reservoirs.”

Othal Brand, Jr., general manager of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, said he started pumping water out of the Rio Grande as soon as he got the TCEQ email about the fish kill on April 30.

“I immediately called the City of McAllen and said we have got to fill the reservoirs. I called all the farmers and they started watering their crops. All the irrigation districts in the Valley did the same as we did. We all worked round the clock. We did not know how bad things were going to be. We had to prepare for the worst,” Brand said.

Brand said his engineers were pumping day and night, whereas normally they only pump at night. “I expect our electricity bill has quadrupled,” he said. As the sampling showed no contamination in the Rio Grande such emergency measures were not needed. But, Brand said, irrigation district managers did not know that at the time. “We had to act, based upon the information from TCEQ.” He said he does not yet have a figure on how much extra money farmers, cities and irrigation districts have spent pumping water frantically in case the river was contaminated upstream.

Asked what Valley residents should do if there is a real contamination in the Rio Grande, Brand said, “Get in your car and drive north. The stores will run out of bottled water very soon.” Brand said formulating an emergency plan is not easy because, he says, Mexico will not provide adequate or timely information about a chemical spill in the Rio Grande. “I have lived and worked in Mexico. I know how they do things. We were probably pumping the actual water that came from the Rio Salado because we got the information so late. We were first notified on April 30 and the fish kill occurred about April 8. That is unacceptable.”

TV commentator and public policy adviser Ron Whitlock said he has been talking to Valley leaders for months about being prepared for a chemical or an oil spill in the Rio Grande. “We do not have an emergency plan in place and we need to develop one,” Whitlock said. “We will be having a one-day conference on this very subject on South Padre Island in the coming weeks with all the key stakeholders. Stay tuned.”