I was 8 years old, I think, when I first ran Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande River. I have made the trip so many times now I loose count. My parents subscribed themselves, and consequently me too, to a life lived with wilderness and adventure. Over the years my family would run one section of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region of West Texas every Thanksgiving, usually Santa Elena Canyon. The memories from these adventures has provoked and inspired me to take initiative in developing a program that will hopefully facilitate in students a love of rivers.

I have been an administrator of collegiate outdoor recreation programs for 20 years now, and the general apathy towards wilderness from students concerns me. Combining this with the degradation of the Rio Grande River and my passion and experience for rivers, especially the Rio Grande, I decided that because of my unique position at the University of Texas at Austin that the responsibility of inspiring young people to love and respect rivers fell to me. So how do you engage today’s college student in a way that facilitates their educational development and river running skill competencies at the same time? The answer is Longhorn Stream Team.

Santa Elena Canyon, Rio Grande River - Texas | Chris Burnett
Santa Elena Canyon, Rio Grande River – Texas

The Longhorn Stream Team (LST) is a program of the UT-Austin Division of Recreational Sports whose purpose is to train and teach citizen scientists to paddle Texas rivers, collect water quality data, and promote conservation to ensure the longevity of Texas waterways. The LST program is the result of a collaboration between the Texas Stream Team Program and the Division of Recreational Sports’, Outdoor Recreation Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Texas Stream Team is a statewide water quality monitoring program housed at the “Meadows Center for Water and the Environment” at Texas State University. The “Texas Stream Team” provides statewide oversight and water quality measurement training to the general public so that citizens of Texas can collect more water quality data for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Each fall semester LST brings 10 new students to train with Texas Stream Team instructors on how to collect and measure water samples while Recreational Sports provides canoeing and swift water rescue training.

The Longhorn Stream Team has developed to encompass four main pillars of purpose: science, service, environmental leadership, and river readiness. Science is fostered through the training of citizen scientists in the collection and reporting of of water quality samples on Texas rivers. Service is achieved through outreach activities in which members use their river skills and resources for the benefit of the Austin community. Environmental Leadership is developed through outreach initiatives that draw community attention to issues of water conservation and watershed protection. River Readiness is built over time through paddling and swift water rescue trainings, trip planning and safety instruction, and trip execution. These four pillars contribute to the experiential education and development of informed, empowered, and engaged citizen scientists and students in the University of Texas community.

Every year, the Longhorn Stream Team (LST) runs six rivers across Texas and New Mexico including the Rio Grande, San Marcos, Frio, Guadalupe, Colorado River and Chama Rivers. Water samples along each river were collected and analyzed using a variety of water quality parameters (pH, electro-conductivity, dissolved oxygen). The results were recorded and to be submitted to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and posted in the 24 year data set of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

One of the the highlights of each year is the annual Santa Elena Canyon trip in Big Bend National Park. Watching the power of the remote vast West Texas Chihuahuan Desert and the rugged beauty of the steep canyon walls of Santa Elena wash over and inspire students has been some of the most rewarding work of my life. It is my hope that the legacy of the Rio Grande will be preserved not only in the hearts and minds, but through the actions of future generations.

-Chris Burnett