The drought of 2011 brought into sharp focus a question that has concerned Texans for decades: Could we run out of water? Andrew Sansom of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment discusses Texas’ water woes.
Andrew Sansom is one of the leading conservationists in Texas. As executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, formerly the River Systems Institute, he leads Texas State’s broad and comprehensive efforts to ensure sustainable water resources.
Before coming to Texas State, Sansom was executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where in 1997 he was one of the state leaders instrumental in the passage of Senate Bill 1, landmark legislation affecting the development and management of water resources in Texas. He also created the Parks and Wildlife Foundation of Texas, which funds a number of department programs through private donations, and new urban fish and wildlife programs designed to promote conservation awareness in urban areas.
Early in his career, Sansom worked for the National Recreation and Park Association in Washington, D.C. He has served as environmental coordinator for the White House Conference on Youth; special assistant to Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton; director of conservation education at the Federal Energy Administration; and deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Houston.
Sansom has also served as executive director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, and on the board of trustees of the Texas Historical Foundation, Bat Conservation International, KLRU Public Television in Austin, and the National Audubon Society. He has written for numerous publications and is the author of six books.
Recently Sansom shared his thoughts about Texas water issues and what he sees as the future for this critical resource.
You’ve been a conservationist all your life. Why did you decide to focus on water at this point in your career?
Water is the one substance that is essential for all life. No plant or animal, including humans, can live without water. Over the years, it became apparent to me that having sufficient water is the limiting factor for all of the values I have believed in and advocated with respect to the environment, but it is also the limiting factor for the economic future of our children.
What are the biggest water challenges in Texas?
Our population is expected to double in the next 50 years or so, yet we have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from many of our rivers than is actually in them today.
Water is not only essential for continued economic growth, it is essential for maintaining our quality of life, and we must instill a culture that embraces the reality that neither of these purposes is mutually exclusive.
Although drought could actually become a more permanent feature of our existence, we cannot afford to wait until it becomes an emergency to address it.
What are some of the misconceptions about water in Texas?
As a largely urban society today, the biggest misconception is that as long as water continues to flow out of the tap in the kitchen or bathroom, everything is OK. During the drought of the 1950s, which we refer to as the “drought of record,” everyone lived in small towns or on farms or ranches, and they felt the drought directly. Today that is no longer true, as most of us are far removed from the direct impact.
Another misconception is that any water that we leave in our rivers and streams after we satisfy our municipal, industrial and agricultural needs is wasted. The freshwater flowing from our springs down the landscape to the Texas coast and into our bays and estuaries supports one of the most remarkably diverse, economically and environmentally important ecosystems in the world, and assuring a sufficient amount of water to support it is anything but waste.
You were one of the state leaders who worked for passage of Senate Bill 1. Explain the goals of that legislation and what has changed in the 15 years since.
Actually, there have been three seminal pieces of water legislation passed by our legislature in the last 15 years or so: Senate Bills 1, 2 and 3. Senate Bill 1 established a “bottom-up” water planning process where regional groups of stakeholders collaborated to establish plans for meeting our future water supply needs. Senate Bill 2 tackled management of groundwater in Texas for the first time by enabling the creation of Groundwater Conservation Districts across the state. Senate Bill 3 created a process for establishing “environmental flow standards” for our rivers, streams and estuaries to protect the aquatic ecosystems that inhabit them.
Today, with respect to the planning process of Senate Bill 1, it is clear that we can’t simply build our way out of our water problems. We need to reform our planning process to include policy changes as well as infrastructure. Groundwater management as envisioned in Senate Bill 2 has been set back by court action that has declared groundwater is the private property of private citizens who own the surface above it. This is directly contrary to the ancient system of surface water management, which declared that the same water, when in rivers and lakes, belongs to the state. Finally, although citizens and scientists have done much work to establish environmental flow standards for rivers and streams, much of the water in them has already been allocated for other purposes.
Why is Texas State the perfect place to study water?
Water is a core value at Texas State, not only because we have on our faculty some of the leading experts in the field, particularly in our departments of geography and biology, but also due to the fact that we have on our campus one of the most significant water features in the world. The artesian San Marcos Springs located at Texas State are the second largest in the Southwest; they are home to eight federally listed endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna and they are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously inhabited sites by human beings in North America. They are not only a rich laboratory for research and a microcosm of many of Texas’ most daunting water issues, they are a rich source of inspiration to our faculty and students.
What are Texas State’s goals regarding water?
We aspire to be one of the nation’s leading institutions for the study of water; to be engaged in efforts to ensure secure supplies of it for the environment and for economic prosperity; to be proper stewards of the magnificent water resources with which we have been entrusted; and to inspire and instruct the coming generation of leaders who will be responsible for managing it.
What is the most important thing you want Texans to know about water?
Water is life. We cannot afford to take it for granted. It is a source of inspiration, recreation, natural diversity and spiritual nourishment but it is, at its essence, the key to our survival and that of every other living creature on the earth.
Andrew Sansom on the web:
Andrew Sansom Bio
Cornelius Amory Pugsley State Medal Award
To Preserve and Protect Our Rivers
Andrew Sansom to receive prestigious Audubon Society award
Andrew Sansom on gulfbase.org
Conservation Hero Andrew Sansom
Five Questions for Andy Sansom
Water in Texas Book
Interview with Andy Sansom
Meadows Center for Water and the Environment
Texas Stream Team