TAMIU professor emeritus and biologist Dr. Tom Vaughan will be honored Friday, April 7 at the Laredo Country Club by the Río Grande International Study Center (RGISC), the non-profit environmental organization he co-founded in 1994.
Vaughan has selflessly volunteered time over the last two decades to monitor and evaluate the condition of the Río Grande, the only source of drinking water for this region and for millions of residents of the border.
The data that he and his students, colleagues, and environmentalists have amassed over 25 years has been shared with local, state, and federal agencies. That two-decade window of studies coincides with the growth of international trade that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo have enjoyed since the implementation of the NAFTA.
Through RGISC, Vaughan and his longtime friend and fellow biologist Dr. Jim Earhart have been bellwethers of international environmental awareness and stewardship of the Río Grande, its tributaries, and its riparian habitat. In addition to testing the waters of the river above, at, and below Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, their earliest efforts focused on the education of school children, community awareness, and establishing relationships with the City of Laredo, Webb County, the school districts, Laredo Community College, Texas A&M International University, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The two biologists, who are considered eminences of responsible, sustainable environmental stewardship, established RGISC’s role in forming public policy as it gave voice not only to the river but also to the residents of Laredo who have opposed the federal government’s push for chemical defoliation of the riverbanks.
RGISC’s advocacy and the role of several of its members, including Vaughan and Earhart, were instrumental in the writing of the City’s Haz Mat Ordinance, which fomented the establishment of the Environmental Services Department. Both were instrumental in the writing of the City’s Green Space Ordinance.
Under Vaughan and Earhart, RGISC worked to save segments of Manadas Creek and area wetlands from degradation and the encroachment of developers. RGISC was a key component of the effort to implement the City’s 2015 ban on plastic bags.
Vaughan’s resume includes critical research under auspices of the International Boundary and Water Commission that determined the presence of heavy metals in the waters of the Río Grande. Also of great importance was his work to establish a state water-testing program on the river in the early 1990s through the Texas Clean Rivers Act.
According to Vaughan, the constant media coverage of the poor condition of the waters of the Río Grande prompted him, his wife Pam, and Dr. Earhart to take serious notice of the river and to launch RGISC in 1994. They organized as a non-profit, sought membership and contributions, and then landed a modest Meadows Foundation grant that allowed them to begin building a viable organization housed on the campus of Laredo Community College.
Laredo activist and veterinarian Dr. Adolfo Kahn, Vaughan said, was an inspiration and a guiding in-your-face impetus for developing a clear picture of the major sources of contamination of the Río Grande — unfettered NAFTA-inspired growth in the new colonias of Nuevo Laredo that had no sewage infrastructure for homes made of wooden pallets, cardboard, and cast-off building materials; maquilas that disregarded Mexican federal environmental law for their hazardous waste; and American warehouses that likewise disregarded environmental law for the disposal of inbound hazardous Mexican manufacturing waste. He said that Kahn’s “Toxic Tour” lit the fuse for a handful of Laredo environmentalists who came together at RGISC.
“When we started assessing the Nuevo Laredo raw sewage outfalls pouring into the Río Grande in the mid-1990s, it was estimated to be at 25,000,000 gallons per day. It’s much reduced to about 6,000,000 gallons a day, but it’s still there,” he said, recalling that he took biology students with him to Nuevo Laredo so that they could understand the vastness of the impact of the unfettered flow of sewage into the Río Grande. He said one especially disturbing aspect of the Toxic Tour was a large dump adjacent to the Nuevo Laredo Club Campestre — a foul lagoon filled with household refuse; human and chemical waste; the offal and trimmings of butchers; junk; and dead animals. Vaughan said the pigs that ate from that dump were slaughtered and eaten by humans.
One of the greatest measures of Vaughan’s impact on this community is what he so generously imparted to his biology students at LCC and TAMIU about the conservation of natural resources and environmental preservation. That, and getting them to the river and onto the clean upriver segments for excursions by kayak and canoe. “Many of them have gone on to find jobs related to the environment and clean water. Some are doing important research,” he said of his collaborative, hands-on approach to having them experience not only the river’s degraded sites but also its raw beauty upriver. He said this gave them a context for understanding the impact of humans on the fragile riparian ecosystem of the river.
Vaughan, a native of Alamogordo, New Mexico earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Eastern New Mexico University and a Ph.D in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. He and Pam, also a biologist, spent three years on a Smithsonian Institution-sponsored project to study the mammals of Tunisia in North Africa. He joined the faculty of the department of biology of Kuwait University and while there spent much time on the Arabian Gulf mudflats studying the ecology and behavior of a group of fish known as mudskippers.
Vaughan taught at Laredo Community College, Laredo State University, and most recently at Texas A&M International University for 23 years before retiring in January 2014. For 15 years he was an instructor for the South Texas Environmental Education and Research (STEER) program at the Laredo campus of the University of Texas Health Science Center.
In addition to his service as former president and chair of the board of directors of RGISC, he served two terms on the board of directors of the Río Grande/Río Bravo Basin Coalition. As a member of RGISC he helped establish the Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Center and also spearheaded the annual Día del Río Celebration. His work with machete, pick, and shovel were part of the establishment of the Paso del Indio Nature Trail. In 2016 he received the Jefferson Award for Public Service bestowed by the Laredo Area Community Foundation.
After living in Laredo for 36 years, the beloved instructor and Pam leave Laredo to make their home in Vail, Arizona. They have two sons, Anthony and Andrew, and four grandchildren.
The April 7 salute to Vaughan’s work is also a fundraiser to establish a RGISC scholarship endowment. VIP corporate tables are available for $5,000. General tables are on sale at $2,500. A limited number of individual tickets are also available. For reservations and further information, call Tricia Cortez at the RGISC office at (956) 718-1063 or at (956) 319-4374.