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The Q&A: Karen Ford

In this week's Q&A, we interview Karen Ford, managing director at WaterPR.

Karen Ford is the manager of client and creative services and WaterPR.

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

Karen Ford is managing director at WaterPR in Austin, a broad service communication firm with a singular focus on water issues in Texas. With more than 20 years of communicating on water, environment and other social issues, her daily work now involves water conservation, desalination, ag water efficiency, resource stewardship, and water planning and policy. As a Hays County commissioner from 2007 to 2010, she founded the Hays County Water Conservation Working Group and produced the area's first-ever rainwater harvesting public education event. She is a founding and current board member of Hill Country Alliance.

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

Trib+Water: Could you tell me a little bit about some of the clients you work with?

Karen Ford: One is the Texas Desalination Association, and we put together their annual conference and help them with their communication tools. … That’s coming up in September, so we’re in the throes of that right now.

For the past two and a half years, we have been working with the Harlingen irrigation district in the Rio Grande Valley. They have a Water Development Board grant, and are doing on-farm demonstrations with different types of irrigation methodologies looking for ways to be most efficient with water.

We’ve just gotten very involved in water issues down there, following not only irrigation stuff but also the 1944 treaty with Mexico and that whole issue because it does affect growers. … We’ve branded the program for the Texas Project for Ag Water Efficiency, or the Texas Project for AWE, with a website,

Basically, we’re trying to communicate not only to growers some irrigation efficient techniques but also to other irrigation districts. There’s, I think, 26, 27 irrigation districts in the Valley. They all use water from the Rio Grande. There’s just efficient ways to move water around in canals and pipes and things like that.

Trib+Water: If you had to present the story on Texas water conservation efforts, what would be the broad, overarching themes of the effort in this state?

Ford: I don’t think there’s been a huge, broad, overarching effort in the state. There has been a campaign developed. I’ve worked with EnviroMedia, which is an ad agency, years ago. And we had funding from the state and did statewide research on water back in 2004. What do Texans think about water? What do they know about their water? And the big “ah ha” was they don’t know where their water comes from.

I’m hoping that’s changed somewhat, but I’m guessing it hasn’t. But I think there’s been so much more focus on water right now. People are probably more aware of what their sources of water are.

We’ve developed a Water IQ program and some messages behind that. And that has never been funded by the state. The state has not funded an overarching water conservation campaign for the public.

Trib+Water: So it sounds like this might be a good time to push for that…

Ford: The Texas Water Development Board did just give grants, totaling close to $1 million, for various water conservation and education programs. We hope there will be more money coming from the state for that and that some of these projects that come under SWIFT will have conservation components as part of them.

The criteria for funding the goals that they’re setting, the rules that they’re making for giving the SWIFT money away will have a rating system that gives a higher score to projects that have a conservation component. We were happy to see that. The conservation component of 20 percent is a floor, not a ceiling. I expect we’ll see projects coming in that have some good conservation components to them.

Trib+Water: Are more people entering your particular field? Is this area becoming more competitive?

Ford: I don’t know that I see it all that more competitive in terms of specialty PR companies, but I do see general PR companies entering the water field. It’s interesting to see the types of organizations that applied for grants for the Texas water conservation grants. Some of them were for-profit and some of them were nonprofit. And some of them were government. I think it’s good to see a lot of focus on water conservation from all different groups and different parts of our state.

Trib+Water: I would imagine it keeps you on your toes as well…

Ford: Yeah, we do. The phone isn’t ringing all the time with people just desiring our business. But there’s certainly a lot of opportunity out there if you can look at the kind of work that you want to do. We have some government work and some association work. We also work for some nonprofits and for a river authority. There’s a lot of work for the conservation end of it and looking at stewardship and natural resource protection.

I’m also on the board of the Hill Country Alliance and have been on that board for 10 years. Our focus is on bringing folks together around the issues of resource protection. That’s kind of what I do in my day job, too.

Trib+Water: Water is something Texans are much more conscious about because of the drought. What should Texans know long term about the challenges facing the state?

Ford: There are two schools of thought. One is we are not going to build our way out of this, and I’ve heard other people say we’re not going to conserve our way out of this. I have to take issue. I think we really are going to have to adopt as a citizenry a new water ethic in the way we think about and use water. And the way we look at our landscapes. And the way we value our large landscapes and understanding the role that they play in our water supply.

Our water in our urban areas comes from our rural landscapes. There’s going to have to be a bridge and an understanding of the connection between our urban needs and our rural landscapes. That’s kind of a big one for me. Are we pouring expensive, treated water out on our lawns that are filled with plants that don’t belong in this state?

Something that has been an issue and needs to be resolved in our state is this disconnection between the way we manage our surface waters and manage our groundwater. It’s as if there are two separate systems and they are not connected and one is private and the other is public. And they are all connected. I think this understanding of the interconnection of our groundwater and surface water is something that needs to be really driven home for Texans. But as long as we have two separate systems and two agencies and two sets of rules for managing, we’re going to be behind the ball.

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