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Finding Solutions along the Border

Environmental summits empower local communities to take action. (Natural Outlook, Winter/Spring 2011)

Rio Grande at Big Bend.
Rio Grande at Big Bend.

For the past ten years in El Paso, environmental summits have brought together government agencies, local companies, high-school students, environmental experts, and residents to discuss environmental issues, identify possible solutions, and implement those solutions.

El Paso Environmental Summits

"The goal of the El Paso Environmental Summits is to provide the public with accessible information on environmental and conservation issues," said Pam Aguirre, a small business and local government compliance assistance specialist in El Paso with the TCEQ's Small Business and Environmental Assistance Division.

Attendance has grown steadily, from around 120 in 2000 to over 400 in 2010. Keep El Paso Beautiful raises funds to pay for summit expenses, including lunch for attendees. Local businesses and nonprofit organizations have informational booths and students from the fashion design classes at El Paso Community College hold a "Trashion" show, where they model clothing made from recycled materials.

Before the summit each year, a steering committee identifies four local environmental challenges to be addressed by attendees in "solution" breakout sessions. Summit participants in each session are then tasked to work together throughout the upcoming year to find solutions to these challenges.

"The summits are a way to engage people on environmental issues in their communities," said Brian Christian, director of the TCEQ's Small Business and Environmental Assistance Division. "This grassroots effort brings together neighborhood associations, colonia residents, nonprofit groups, local business leaders, high-school students, elected officials, and federal, state, and local government agencies for the common goal of identifying and tackling local environmental challenges."

Topics discussed at the first summit in 2000 were windblown trash, construction debris, illegal dumping of tires, and illegal dumping of grease-trap waste. Some challenges can be resolved in less than a year. Others, such as grease-trap waste, can take longer.

"We were the largest city in Texas that didn't have any type of processing for grease-trap waste," said Aguirre. "The closest facility was a landfill in Odessa, which was about 600 miles round trip. Some grease haulers were dumping grease in the desert or in sewers instead of taking it to Odessa. This was causing grease blockages and other problems. In 2010, ten years after we started working on a solution, we had the grand opening of our first grease-processing facility here in El Paso."

Topics for the 2010 solution sessions included renewable resources, the environmental impact of hoarding on neighborhoods, and the lack of household hazardous waste disposal options for residents of El Paso County.

The middle- and high-school students who attended the renewable resources session committed to making several public service announcements this year. "They're going to target kids their own age with messages about renewable resources and conservation," said Aguirre.

"Seeing young folks who are interested in environmental issues become inspired at the summits is very exciting," said Ramiro Garcia, TCEQ area director, Border and South Central Texas. "These students are the future leaders who will help address the issues we see in this growing part of our state."

For more information about the El Paso summit, visit Facebook. exit

Community Involvement Is Key to Success

A key component, and the one that has made the summits such a success in El Paso, is the emphasis on ownership and community involvement.

Aguirre feels that the process empowers the community and gives them a sense of commitment. "The summits give people an opportunity to learn, voice opinions, and be a part of the solution," she said.

"People are taking ownership in finding solutions they can be a part of," said Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein. "They identify concerns in their own communities that they can actually do something about. They know they are there to identify issues and come together with solutions."

New Summits Inspired by Success in El Paso

"El Paso was successful in bringing a variety of groups and people together and I wanted to see that in other places along the border," said Commissioner Buddy Garcia. "I felt that El Paso had a good template that could be replicated elsewhere."

Using the El Paso model, the TCEQ worked with local legislative sponsors—Representative Eddie Lucio III in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Senator Judith Zaffirini in Laredo—to make two new summits a reality in 2010. Both legislators were actively involved in every aspect of the summits—from participating on the steering committees and helping craft the agendas, to sending out fundraising letters, to speaking at the events. The leadership and participation of Senator Zaffirini and Representative Lucio were crucial in making the two new summits a success.

Rio Grande at Big Bend.
Rio Grande at Big Bend.

As in El Paso, local nonprofit environmental groups, businesses, and government agencies had booths at the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Laredo summits to display information about their environmental programs.

Lower Rio Grande Valley Summit

Representative Lucio welcomed 175 attendees, stating that the Rio Grande Valley is one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, having an effect on agriculture and manufacturing, both of which rely heavily on a good-quality water supply.

Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Strauss was on hand to speak about environmental issues and encourage participants to take an active role in finding solutions for future generations.

Chairman Bryan W. Shaw, Ph.D., spoke about the environmental challenges along the border. Commissioner Garcia addressed air quality, sustainable economic development, and illegal dumping of waste. Commissioner Rubinstein spoke about flooding and water conservation.

Plans are already under way for the next summit, which will be held in McAllen on Oct. 28, 2011. "We want to rotate the summit each year to different locations within the Harlingen Region to increase participation and awareness," said David Ramirez, director of the TCEQ's Region 15, with headquarters in Harlingen. "This will help to ensure that people in Cameron, Willacy, Hidalgo, and Starr counties are able to participate."

For more information about the Lower Rio Grande Valley summit, visit www.valleyes.org. exit

Laredo Summit

At the summit in Laredo, held on the campus of Texas A&M International University, Commissioner Garcia encouraged Texas border residents to expand their knowledge of environmental issues, and Commissioner Rubinstein noted the importance of engaging the public, particularly students.

Senator Zaffirini received a standing ovation from 174 enthusiastic attendees for her keynote address, in which she recalled environmental progress in Texas. She also stressed the need for empowering and engaging community residents on environmental issues.

Keynote speaker Tom Harris, CEO of Tyonek Native Corporation in Alaska, discussed interdependent solutions. Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas and Webb County Judge Danny Valdez read a joint proclamation proclaiming the day as Laredo Environmental Day.

Throughout the day, participants met in breakout sessions to discuss solutions for illegal dumping, conservation, and water quality.For more information about the Laredo summit, visit www.laredoenvironmentalsummit.org. exit

Next on the Horizon

The environmental summits in El Paso, Laredo, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley have definitely proven to be a successful outreach vehicle for the agency, as well as a way to actively engage these communities in working to improve their environment and quality of life. With the goal of expanding this model to other parts of the state, the next new summit location will be in the Central Texas area.

"The biggest benefit of the environmental summits is direct involvement with the local communities," said Chairman Shaw. "Our great state has vastly different regions, each with their own environmental challenges. It is paramount that our agency continue to interact with regional stakeholders. Only through such interaction will we be able to understand the specific challenges in each region and truly appreciate how regulations adopted in Austin impact local communities."

For information on other TCEQ border initiatives, visit the TCEQ Border Initiative.

Success in El Paso

El Paso.
El Paso.

Following are a few of the many accomplishments that have resulted from the collaborative community involvement in the El Paso summits:

  • Creation of a program of community toolsheds located at all 14 fire stations in El Paso, where citizens can "borrow" rakes, shovels, trimmers, trash bags, and bottled water for small community cleanups.
  • Creation of the first Environmental Court in Texas.
  • Creation of an emissions trading program with Mexico.
  • Cleanup and recycling of an abandoned pile of 350,000 tires.

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