MCALLEN, RGV – U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez says he supports a “smart wall” to improve border security but not a physical barrier.

Gonzalez gave the keynote address at the 8th annual Valley Environmental Summit. Sponsored by the Valley Environmental Coalition, it was held at the Embassy Suites in McAllen. It was titled, “Our True Nature … Environmental Initiatives for Regional Impact.”

Building a “smart wall” using resources such as radar, fiber optics, drones and detection cameras would bring “real” border security, said the McAllen Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez speaks at the 8th Annual Valley Environmental Summit.

“With a smart wall,” said Gonzalez, “we could have a more secure border at a fraction of the cost, implemented and fully operational within a year. This method would harness American innovation and ingenuity to (create) a solution that would not only act to stop illegal migration activity but would support out local economy.”

Gonzalez said the “the ignorant Border Wall” was an example of how the United States was failing to support the environment and present an example on the world stage.

“(There are) severe concerns about health, safety and welfare of our people, and the ignorant Wall itself.” he said, claiming there is a lot at stake.

“Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and nearby protected areas are part of a thriving eco-tourism industry along the Rio Grande Valley that brings in excess of $463 million annually,” Gonzalez said. “It’s important to us economically, as well as for our children and our children’s children.”

Gonzalez said a community’s goals should be to connect with each other instead of building physical barriers.

Gonzalez said that “while we have a natural interest in using our resources, it’s just as important to preserve them in a responsible and sustainable way.” Chairman and founder of Oil and Gas Caucus in the Texas House and a member of the Renewable Energy Caucus, Gonzalez said the question of fossil fuel wars is very present.

“ISIS gets a great deal of its revenue from fossil fuel.” But, he added, “the United States has found a way to economically fight terrorism through the increased production of energy.”

Touching on other issues, Gonzalez said, “Our national parks are a treasure that need to be preserved.” He said he co-sponsored a bill to establish a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund to repair and rehabilitate assets for certain historic or park-related projects that weren’t being funded

Believing it is the United States’ obligation to be a world leader, he expressed disapproval of President Trump’s plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Summit offered information and insight designed to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Omar Rios, president of the Valley Environmental Coalition, said “It starts with you (the public) – how you shop, how you drive your vehicle. We give you the knowledge so you can make your own choices.”

The environmental summit was designed “to bring together the public, political leaders, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses and students … to identify environmental problems and come up with solutions that impact quality of life and the environment in Valley communities.” Over 250 adults and schoolkids from around the Valley participated.

Bryan Hale, KGBT’s chief meteorologist, was Master of Ceremonies. Morning speakers included McAllen City Commissioner Veronica Whitacre, South Padre Island Mayor and Embassy Suites owner Barry Patel, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Commissioner Jon Niermann.

TCEQ sponsors the annual Texas Environmental Excellence Award, given this year to Weslaco’s Valley Nature Center.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications,” said Senator Lucio. “The Summit answers the need for community coordination, awareness and information exchange related to the environment.”

Senator Lucio spoke for many when he said, “we have a responsibility to our planet and to one another to care for the environment.”

“Many of our communities are challenged by our environment,” said Patel. Still, he said, “there’s no excuse for not lightening our carbon footprint.”

“We’re always a week, a month or (a little more) from a change or a crisis in the environment,” said Hale.

Following opening remarks, including from Texas state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, attendees participated in short presentations. Topics included:

  • Nature in the RGV
  • mobility from borders to beaches
  • green infrastructure
  • sustainable food systems and security
  • wind power
  • water and RGV flood forecasting
  • solar energy
  • and waste / recycling initiatives.

The Conservation Fund presentation outlined support for a nature-based economy. Having created an interconnected stakeholder network in Cameron County, the Fund will expand to Hidalgo County, Starr and Willacy when funding becomes available. Discussing how the Green Infrastructure Vision map was created, the presenter stressed “conservation doesn’t automatically mean only public ownership. There are other tools.”

There was also information on McAllen’s and Edinburg’s recycling efforts.

McAllen’s recycling includes:

  • an electronics’ program. Hard drives are completely wiped and certified documentation is provided
  • paper shredding
  • recycling up to five tires per month by residents. Exceptions must be approved.

Recycling contamination is a big issue, according to many attending the summit. McAllen’s “Recycle Right” program allows one contamination “strike,” followed by random checks by city investigators. A second violation means blue bin removal plus a $10.50 monthly charge. After six months, residents can get their bins back.

Both McAllen and Edinburg have recycling drop-offs. Edinburg, however, has no proof-of-residency requirement and businesses and residents are welcome.

Edinburg has offered voluntary residential curbside recycling within the city limits since 2012. To help citizens understand the importance and proper way to recycle, Edinburg offers educational instruction.

Trashion Show

The Summit featured something for everyone.

The “Trashion Show” featured fun, often fashionable clothing made from recycled/trash materials modeled by Brownsville’s Athlos Leadership Academy students. Video contest winning entries were shown. Created and produced in approximately one month, many were professional quality. Art contest winners were also announced. Video winners received cash prizes; art contest winners were awarded bicycles, a Tablet and/or Schlitterbahn Waterpark family packs.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows children at the RGV Sierra Club table at the 8th Annual Valley Environmental Summit. Former Sierra Club chapter leader Jim Chapman is pictured left explaining issues to the children.