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May 12, 2000     (512) 463-0300

The Senate Natural Resources Committee Holds Public Hearing at the Port of Brownsville

BROWNSVILLE - The Senate Natural Resources Committee traveled to the Port of Brownsville Friday, May 12, 2000. The committee was examining the state of South Texas water resources, the opportunities and challenges facing the Texas coastal region and port expansion and growth.

Committee members include Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson serving as Chair. Senator Kenneth Armbrister of Victoria serves as Vice-Chair. Other members include Senators Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville and Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant.

After opening remarks by Brown, Armbrister, Haywood and Lucio, Commissioner John Baker with the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) began the invited testimony speaking about statewide water issues in general and the Rio Grande Valley specifically. Baker said that recent transfers of water supplies from Mexico to Texas will be helpful for farmers in the Valley, just in time for the growing season. However, Mexico still owes the U.S. much more water under previous agreements.

Senator Lucio questioned whether any U.S. companies had moved to Mexico due to a lack of water in Texas, to which Commissioner Baker said he had no direct knowledge, but would find out and report back. He also said that residential users in the Valley have first call on water supplies. One statewide problem is that reservoirs are only seventy-four percent full, the lowest in almost 30 years due to the ongoing drought.

Carolyn Brittin from the Texas Water Development Board followed up on the questions regarding Mexican water deliveries, saying that the lack of water has an impact of hundreds of millions of dollars on Texas. Senator Brown commented that Texas might be willing to take less water than it is due under its agreement with Mexico, if deliveries could be made in a more timely manner.

Wayne Halbert of the Texas Irrigation Council concluded the testimony on South Texas water resources stating that Mexico owes at least a year's supply of water to Texas and is falling further behind. Halbert testified that Mexico's inability to supply promised water to this side of the Rio Grande means we must redouble our own conservation efforts.

The committee then heard from a number of witnesses on the opportunities and challenges facing the Texas coast. Bob Cook from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) led off this group, telling the committee that a Governor's task force is currently studying a number of natural resource issues, including threats to wildlife habitat, endangered species recovery, conservation incentives for private landowners and how the parks system can better serve urban Texans. Cook also mentioned that the coming World Birding Center in the Rio Grande Valley will be a major tourist attraction in the area. John Herron from TPWD then told the committee that with more than 600 species of birds in Texas, it is indeed hard to keep track of them all., but that the number one problem facing the bird population is loss of habitat.

Tony Reisinger, the Cameron County Marine Extension Agent, testified about how the economy of Cameron County is tied to its natural resources. He said that more than ten thousand jobs in Cameron County depend on the shrimp industry and that technological advances mean that the production on shrimp on inland farms is becoming more and more important. Reisinger also testified as to the importance of sport fishing and other water recreation on the area's economy. One challenge is the cleanup of the Arroyo Colorado. Currently, more than 20 industries line the arroyo, each dumping varying amounts of waste into it. He also testified that proposed TPWD closures of certain shrimp beds will have an adverse economic impact on the Valley.

Hal Osburn, Coastal Fisheries Division Director for TPWD, said the agency intends to temporarily increase the cost of a shrimping license, with the additional money going toward a program where TPWD buys back older licenses. It is also encouraging the harvesting of larger shrimp, giving the younger populations a chance to develop. He says this is necessary due to decreasing shrimp populations and in the size of individual shrimp being caught in the Gulf of Mexico. He claims the reason for this is simple -- over fishing. Senator Lucio said, "There needs to be a balance, where people can still make a living and we can still conserve our natural resources".

Wilma Anderson of the Texas Shrimp Association followed, saying that TPWD numbers showing a decreasing harvest do not reflect the overall health of the industry and that the catch is well above the point where one could consider the coast over shrimped. She said that decreases in the catch come from the implementation of environmental requirements on the shrimpers, rather than an actual decrease in the number of available shrimp.

Pam Baker, a biologist with Environmental Defense of Corpus Christi, said that there are indeed many factors that can affect shrimp populations and that over shrimping is indeed part of the problem on the Texas Coast. She questioned some of TPWD's proposals, saying that simply cutting the number of licenses is not the complete answer. Rather, she says that individual shrimpers need to be placed on quotas.

Public testimony followed. Area shrimpers testified that they are concerned that waters off the Texas coast will be closed to shrimping without valid reason. They say that numbers of endangered species are on the increase. They say that TPWD is wrong when it claims that Texas shrimp populations are on the verge of collapse, that levels are nowhere near the levels where they could be considered over shrimped. Other public testimony came from other area residents asking for protection from over development on South Padre Island.

Regarding to port expansion and growth, the committee heard from Pete Reixach Jr., of the Brazos River Harbor Navigation District, representing the Port of Freeport. He testified that the port industry needs help in maintaining channels and that it is facing the same cost squeezes as the rest of private industry.

Raul Besteiro of the Port of Brownsville gave a brief history of the 63 year-old port, saying his facility specializes in bulk cargo and is vital because it is the closest port to Mexico. Future expansion plans include a direct rail and truck link through the city on the other side of the river, Matamoros, to provide a direct route to Monterrey, the major northern Mexican industrial center.

The Committee recessed subject to call of the chair at a time and place to be announced at a later date.

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