Ever heard of kudzu? How about tumbleweed? Both of these plants are not native to America and they cause great damage because they have no natural enemies to control them.
The Rio Grande Valley also has its non-native problem plant – the Arundo donax, or Giant Cane. Not only does this twenty foot monster crowd out native plants, but it consumes huge amounts of water. One small Mexican river has been completely choked by the arundo, and that means less water to go into Falcon Lake reservoir for drinking and irrigation here in the Valley.
While most of the major infestations of arundo are upstream near Laredo and Del Rio, the problem affects us more in the McAllen/Brownsville area because all of our drinking water comes from the river as does all the irrigation water for our large agricultural industry.
The Texas Water Development Board recently released a water use plan that predicts the population of Texas will increase by eighty two per cent in fifty years and the demand for water will increase by twenty two percent, yet the amount of available water will decline by ten percent in that same fifty year period. When seen from this perspective, the work of the Biology Department’s Dr. Rod Summy becomes even more important. Partnering with Dr. John Goolsby and Dr. Pat Moran of the Agricultural Research Service (part of the US Department of Agriculture) in Weslaco, the three won a $245,000 grant to study and implement natural methods to control the giant cane and to put more UTPA students to work.
“You can’t use herbicides in or around drinking water sources. We had to find a way to control arundo naturally and for that, we went back to the giant weed’s origins in Spain” says Dr. Summy. “The Universidad de Alicante helped us find the insects that keep the arundo in check in its native Spain – an armored scale insect, a wasp, and two flies. They lay their eggs in the cane and inhibit its growth. The bugs don’t hurt anything else.”
At present, the Spanish insects are in quarantine here in the Valley to ensure they will not harm the local environment. Once tests have determined they are innocuous, the insects will reproduce on a large scale, then released into the wild.
Though Mexican research facilities such as Pronatura Noreste in Monterrey and Instituto Mexicano de Technologia de Agua in Jiutepec are partnering with Dr. Summy, the current level of violence prohibits making field trips into the Mexican side of the watershed, but the insects know no international boundaries and will be able to spread on their own, bring the giant cane under control on both sides of the Rio Grande.
One of the best features of the new grant is that is builds upon the current program of involving UTPA students in active, on-going research. Last year, UTPA students were supported by a $175,000 cooperative agreement with the Agricultural Research Service in Weslaco. The new grant from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture will fund twelve more UTPA undergraduate students to work directly with the project scientists.
“Students work directly with the scientists – real world experience in designing experiments, gathering and analyzing data and reporting it effectively” says Summy. It’s a great way to encourage STEM education – and to inform students that the USDA has a large number of internships available that usually translate into well-paying jobs after graduation.”
And, of course, a great way to conserve the Valley’s water supply.