UTPA alumnus confirmed as one of state's top watchdogs over the environment
Posted: 06/24/2011
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Carlos Rubinstein has travelled on a career path dedicated to public service ever since he graduated from The University of Texas-Pan American in 1982.

- TCEQ Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein
This spring, the Texas Senate marked another milestone in his journey by unanimously confirming his 2009 appointment by Texas Gov. Rick Perry as one of three commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state's top environmental agency.

Rubinstein described the unanimous approval as humbling and much appreciated. He said he has enjoyed every job he has held. In all of them, Rubinstein has served the residents of Texas.

"Public service gives you an opportunity to give back to the community every day ... and hopefully make a difference. I find it very rewarding," said Rubinstein, who graduated from then Pan American University with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry.

Years of service at TCEQ

Rubinstein came to the commissioner's position with 16 years experience at the TCEQ. In 2008, he was appointed deputy executive director of the agency and prior to that served as its area director for the Border and South Central Texas area and as a regional director for the Harlingen and Laredo offices, two of the agency's 17 statewide satellite office sites. During that time Rubinstein also served as the Rio Grande Watermaster, responsible for allocating, monitoring and controlling the use of surface water in the Rio Grande basin from Fort Quitman to the mouth of the Rio Grande River.

The TCEQ, which has approximately 3,000 employees, is the state agency responsible for permitting, licensing, compliance, enforcement, pollution prevention programs and education related to air and water quality, as well as waste disposal.

As a TCEQ commissioner, Rubinstein sets policy for the agency and rules on contested case matters, enforcement cases and on permit applications.

"I equate it to being somewhat in a judicial capacity as far as having to look at the facts, and interpreting the laws and policies of the agency. We also have some of the same restrictions as judges," said Rubinstein, whose six-year term as commissioner will end in 2015.

His Valley and UTPA roots

Rubinstein came to the Lower Rio Grande Valley as a 10-year-old from Mexico City, where he was born. According to an agency bio, he learned English by speaking Yiddish along with Spanish at home as a child. Although now living in Austin, he calls the Valley home and UTPA a place where he first learned how people and animals can be affected by the environment.

"UTPA provided me a great experience. I enjoyed the small class sizes and the ability to have personal interaction with the professors. I remember the classmates, all of us coming together as a team, particularly doing the lab work," he said, recalling trips as a student to Boca Chica Beach to study the ecosystem there and its impact on sea turtles.

He can readily tell you the exact date he graduated- May 16, 1982- because he married his wife Judy the day before. She is also a UTPA graduate now teaching pre-K students in the Austin ISD. One of his three daughters is also a UTPA-Baylor premedical program graduate now in her third year of medical school at Baylor in Houston.

Public service begins in Brownsville

TCEQ Commissioner Carlos Rubinstein is pictured meeting with the Valley Irrigation District managers. Rubinstein was appointed as a TCEQ Commissioner after working 16 years in various capacities, including deputy executive director, at the state's top environmental agency. Rubinstein graduated from then Pan American University in 1982.
His first job following graduation was as epidemiologist for the City of Brownsville, responsible for tracking and reporting communicable diseases in the community. He later became Brownsville's health director and director of the city's emergency medical programs, where he improved healthcare for area citizens by expanding the emergency services from basic life support to mobile intensive care in the ambulances. He also served Brownsville as its city manager.

After going to work at TCEQ, where he addressed solid waste, water, and air quality requirements and compliance, Rubinstein earned the nickname "Bulldog."

"That came from identifying environmental areas of non-compliance. It was said that once I got hold of a case I didn't let go. It's a good nickname," he said.

While Rio Grande Watermaster, Rubinstein was instrumental in finding a solution to a longstanding Rio Grande water debt by Mexico to the United States, conferring as a top negotiator with both Washington, D.C. government officials as well as those in Mexico to establish a water repayment schedule by Mexico to the United States. The nations share water from the Rio Grande and the Colorado River under a 1944 treaty. The final payment on the debt came in 2005.

"Having lived along the border and understanding our culture gave me the ability to interact in that environment and work with the officials from Mexico and the people being impacted. Being able to work in a cooperative manner and finding a path forward was most enjoyable," he said.

Texas' environmental future

Rubinstein is proud that the TCEQ passed its recent Sunset Review, an appraisal of each state agency conducted every 12 years in Texas to determine an agency's continuation, but projects that over the next few years the agency will need to focus on implementing enhancements the review recommended to improve some of its processes.

Although the state compiles and maintains comprehensive projection plans on a 50-year horizon for the state's water needs, the availability of water is still one of several environmental challenges Texas will continue to face in the future, he said.

"As we continue to grow, we continue to grow the demand for water. So finding better ways to use water is going to be a continuous challenge for Texas, highlighted even more when we have droughts like the one we are experiencing right now. We have to find better ways to develop water, manage it and conserve it," he said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry administered the oath of office to UTPA alumnus Carlos Rubinstein (right), whom he appointed in October 2009 as a Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Rubinstein's wife Judy (center), also a UTPA alumnus, looks on during the swearing in ceremony. Rubinstein's appointment was recently confirmed by the Texas Senate.
Rubinstein said one of the hardest aspects of his job is maintaining the balance of economic growth with environmental protection.

"We don't view one or the other as one has to lose before the other one can win. You can have economic development and at the same time protect the environment," he said. "We've been able to grow economically and still have huge success stories throughout the state in reducing ozone concentrations and nitrogen oxide emissions and improvements in water quality. It shows that if you have proper permitting and you are able to allow an economic project go forward but do it in a responsible and sensible manner where you have safeguards to protect the environment - that it can and does work."

A bright future for UTPA students

Rubinstein said he was proud to learn about UTPA's sustainability efforts on its campus.

"It makes you aware of what you can do within the campus itself in going forward and applying what you learn to provide solutions to real world problems," he said.

Rubinstein touted the valuable skill sets Valley students develop living along the border, including bilingualism and increased cultural competency, and encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunities that are now available to them to pursue an education and develop real life experiences through internships.

"I can't tell you how many folks we have taken on in the various internship programs that we have whenever we have an opening. You already know them when they come for an interview. They come with a better skill set because they already understand what we do as an agency," he said.

Graduates from new degree programs being offered by UTPA, like the one in environmental science, will find an increasing number of jobs not only nationally but locally either with government in a regulatory capacity or in the private sector as consultants or with environmental advocacy groups, Rubinstein said.

When he came out of high school, Rubinstein said the future did not appear as hopeful for Valley students because there weren't as many opportunities open to them as there are now.

"I wondered, 'Am I going to be able to find a job for what I want to do, can I get a quality education?' Now I know that in every sense of the word you absolutely can. I think Pan American is a huge reason why we are able to now have those opportunities. You can't help but be proud of that, " he said.