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The Q&A: Robert Cullick

In this week's Q&A, we interview water consultant Robert Cullick.

Robert Cullick is a public involvement and communications strategist and former Executive Manager, Communications at the L...

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Robert Cullick of Robert Cullick Communications brings more than 30 years of experience in journalism, public relations and public policy to his job as a water consultant. He spent 20 years in communications and corporate strategy for the Lower Colorado River Authority. He has also reported for the Houston Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman. Per his website, Cullick is interested in "finding the 'sweet spot' where public policy concerns successfully intersect the efforts of businesses and governmental organizations to build infrastructure."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: Let’s start with your elevator pitch. What is water consulting, and why is it important for the outside world to know what water consultants do?

Robert Cullick: I consider my job to be building trust where there is no trust at the intersection of infrastructure and public opinion. We are at a critical point in the state where we need to make sure that the public gets behind conservation and water development programs so that we can avert a future problem. To do that, it means to take action today but you won’t see the benefit until later. And that’s hard to do. And so I think it’s really critical for the state, if it’s going to move forward, to have adequate natural resources and infrastructure. And that means making sure that everything we do builds trust as well as concrete in the ground.

Trib+Water: We had a seismic shift in November with the approval of Prop 6. Where does the water consultant fit in a Prop 6 world?

Cullick: Prop 6 became kind of a lightning rod for people's concerns about the drought that hit with extreme consequences in 2011. If you look at it over time, it is nothing more than an extension of public support for water projects. But the Legislature felt it was necessary to go to the public to get it. Three out of four people in Texas voted to invest money in water infrastructure. And that really is a terrific statement that Texans believe in their future. They know they’re going to need water in that future, and they’re willing to spend time and money and resources today to make sure they have it tomorrow.

Trib+Water: Let me ask you to put on your pundit hat about Prop 6. When you look at the water challenge facing Texas, what does Prop 6 address well and, perhaps more importantly, what parts does it not?

Cullick: Prop 6 really just turns a spotlight on a process that has been going on since the late 1990s, which is the water planning process. So it does a great job of underlining what regions and local governments have done to plan for their water future. What it doesn’t do is establish a set of priorities for how that $2 billion will be loaned. And, therefore, there is a lot more work to be done in 2014 to make sure that we have the rules, regulations and priorities so that the money is spent wisely.

Trib+Water: What’s the most important thing for water planners, engineers, policymakers and the like to understand in talking about water with the general public?

Cullick: Prop 6 underlined people's concerns about water. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of knowledge about water. I addressed a Houston-area chamber of commerce last week and I asked just a simple question: Do you know where your water comes from? And do you know the degree to which the future of that water supply is certain? Very few people in that room had a firm idea about where their water came from, about whether or not they had a 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-year supply and whether that supply was secure. I think people really need to pay consideration that there’s strong concern at a global level about water in Texas and really not very much information at the local level.

Trib+Water: We keep hearing these big numbers about how difficult a situation the state is in as far as population growth and the fact the water supply, at this point, there’s not enough to meet that growth. How optimistic are you about the ability of Texas to meet the challenge?

Cullick: I’m very optimistic because the state has tremendous resources, tremendous financial strength and, frankly, a lot of water. In 1930, we had almost no reservoir storage in the state. The reservoir storage per Texan peaked in 1970, and we’re back on the downside of that. We have what it takes to solve the problem. And then solving the problem is going to take a lot of education of the public that there is a problem and that it’s going to require all of us to act as if we are a state with unified resources.

I think an untold story is what a good job the Texas Water Development Board is doing on getting interested parties to tell them what the priorities and the rules and regulations should be on the use of the $2 billion. … They are going around the state and they are refusing to show their hand in terms of putting out a straw man for folks to deal with. And I think they’re doing a fantastic job.

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