With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Jennifer Walker is a water resources coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Walker focuses primarily on water policy issues for Central Texas and the state. She has served on the Lower Colorado Regional Water Planning Group and the Lower Colorado River Authority Water Management Plan Revision Advisory Group, among other groups. More recently, Walker served as a member of the Austin Water Resource Planning Task Force. She has a BS in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from the University of Texas.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What is the Texas Living Waters Project?
Jennifer Walker: The Living Waters Project is a joint effort by the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Galveston Bay Foundation to reform the way that Texas uses and manages its freshwater resources. Our goal is to ensure that environmental water needs are met and recognized and supplied along with municipal, industrial and agricultural needs. What I mean by environmental flows is that is the freshwater needed to support healthy fish and wildlife populations. It is the water flowing in our rivers, and the water flowing into our bays and estuaries.
Trib+Water: So you and this project do a lot, but what is on your table right now — what are you working on?
Walker: Just contextually, the living waters project, to accomplish our goals, we really focus on several areas. We are trying to promote the efficient use of our water supplies — water conservation and efficiency. Proactive drought management — that means planning for drought and implementing drought plans when drought comes and using groundwater and surface water sustainably. We have to get all those in place in order to accomplish our goals of maintaining flowing rivers and healthy fish and wildlife habitat…
What I focus on is several things — we all wear many hats. I’m focusing on water conservation, and doing education and working with water utilities primarily. And also educating our members and stakeholders around the state on water conservation and efficiency and trying to educate folks on how much water, what the appropriate amount of water is, and different kinds of water conservation techniques utilities can do. That involves a whole lot of different things. You may have seen a lot in the press lately about water utilities struggling with revenue, so we are working with folks to help educate utilities and provide tools to work through the revenue question.
Trib+Water: As someone who has been working at the Sierra Club for more than 10 years, how have you seen the state of water changed?
Walker: I’ve seen a lot of change. When I first started working on this project, we had a whole lot of goals we wanted to accomplish on this project and we accomplished several of them — not just through our own work but through the work of other organizations. One of the things I’ve seen is the regional water planning process involved to where conservation and drought management are taken more seriously, and their goal is taken more seriously in meeting the state’s water needs. That wasn’t really emphasized when I first started working on this. A lot of people get credit for moving that ball along — I think it’s a positive development…
We have seen a lot of movement on water conservation and regulation in the state as far as efficient fixtures. We’ve seen funding for water conservation education campaigns. We’ve seen cities all over the state implement programs. The whole Dallas-Fort Worth area, people years ago used to point to that area and wonder why they weren’t doing more — well, now they are. San Antonio has just gone leaps and bounds in their efforts. The city of Austin has as well. There is so much happening all over the state, and what we try to do is facilitate information sharing between all the entities.
Trib+Water: Is there a water issue that deserves more attention than it is getting?
Walker: From my perspective, I really think while we’ve had a lot of focus on environmental flows — we really are going to have to rethink the way that water is allocated for the environment in Texas. We need to proactively plan to provide what is needed to keep our rivers and bays healthy. Just like we do for municipal water use, industrial water use, power, agriculture. Our rivers and bays are natural heritages of Texas, and they are very important to Texas and the people that live here and the health of our state. And we can’t just expect our rivers and bays to get by and be healthy on what’s left over. As water supplies become more and more tight, as we experience drought, we have to proactively, affirmatively plan to make sure we have water in our rivers and bays.
Trib+Water: I want to ask about the Marvin Nichols Reservoir, a $3.4 billion proposed project in Northeast Texas aimed to address a growing need of water supply but has been called by some as unnecessary. In these kinds of areas that need more water supplies, what can cities or utilities do as opposed to building a whole new reservoir?
Walker: It goes back to using water efficiently. We have a really long way to go in many of our communities in Texas. While our communities may be doing things on the water conservation front, there is a lot more we can do to reduce our water-per-person use before we need to go to other areas of the state and build expensive and environmentally destructive projects. We also need to look at our infrastructure and make sure that it’s tight — that our water loss in our distribution systems is minimized. This is very general and may not be appropriate in this specific example, but there is already quite of bit reuse happening in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — but that is something that can be explored as well. Reuse is taking your wastewater that you would normally discharge and retreating it and putting it back through your system.
Trib+Water: As we come up to the upcoming legislative session, what kind of legislation do you expect or want lawmakers will be working on?
Walker: While I do not have a crystal ball and can predict what will happen at the Legislature, there are a couple things that are of interest that we think will come up or hope will come up. One of them is water conservation funding. Last session, there was $1 million appropriated for water conservation education grants for entities around Texas to apply for grants to be able to amp up their water conservation programs. Those grants are being made right now through the Texas Water Development Board. We would love to see that come back, because we think it provides a real benefit to the state.
There is a statewide water program that folks have been trying to get funded through the Legislature for several years. The water IQ program, we think that would be really great to see that funded. That’s a statewide water education campaign that has been developed and that several entities and individuals around the state are using, but we could put it out at a statewide level.
On the environmental flow side, the Texas Water Trust is a program that was created by the Legislature in '97, and it is to hold water rights that are specifically dedicated to environmental flows protection. We need dedicated funding to facilitate outreach efforts and make sure people are aware of the trust, and to cover the administrative cost of processing water rights and managing the trust.