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The Q&A: Sharlene Leurig

In this week's Q&A, we interview Sharlene Leurig, a water planning expert and producer of Our Desired Future, a multimedia storytelling project about water conditions in Texas.

Sharlene Leurig is Director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Program at Ceres, a national nonprofit helping institutional investors to integrate sustainability into the capital markets.

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

Sharlene Leurig is a water planning expert and producer of Our Desired Future, a multimedia storytelling project about water conditions in Texas, which will be completed this summer. Leurig also works as director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Program at Ceres, a national nonprofit working to advance the integration of sustainability into the global financial markets. She holds a master's degree in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a fellow in the MIT-USGS Science Impact Collaborative focusing on the role of science in multi-stakeholder resource planning and dispute resolution.

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

Trib+Water: How is the project looking at West Texas water?

Sharlene Leurig: We are specifically documenting the relationship between the water below ground and water above ground.

Trib+Water: How has the project gone in the year since it launched?

Leurig: That was when we launched our funding campaign, but it has been on and off for the last year. We had started collecting stories in April 2013.

We have been all over a big swath of the state, from West Texas down to the Gulf Coast to the Rio Grande Valley and across Central Texas, talking to people about what is happening with their water and what might happen to water in the future if we continue to use water the way we use it today. 

Trib+Water: What are the sentiments of average people?

Leurig: I think most people who we talking to are seeing with the ongoing drought and the population boom here in Texas, that there is a need to shore up our water supply. And, also, a real concern that supply development, especially as it relates to groundwater, threatens the long term viability of water resources and in some places, especially in rural Texas, the long term viability of their existence as a local economy.

Trib+Water: What have you found in trying to join the conversation about ground and surface water?

Leurig: The most amazing thing that we have learned is that it is one of the least recognized dynamics of water within Texas and also one of the most critically important.

We dug through a ton of data to learn what we could about how much water in Texas rivers comes from groundwater. We were really amazed to find that in an average year, not a drought year, anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of a river's flow comes from the water below ground.

During times of drought, like what we have been experiencing in the past few years, the amount of water in a river in Texas that comes from below ground can be as high as 80 percent of total flow. So it is a really critical interaction, but it is one that is poorly understood in terms of data and monitoring. It is poorly managed in terms of state water plans, projections of future availability, the impact of our desired future conditions, which is where the name of this project comes from.

Desired future conditions are future groundwater storage of an aquifer that is, in many places in Texas, completely disconnected from projections of what surface water will be available. And yet we visited many places in Texas where surface water is no longer reliable because of groundwater pumping.

One of the places we visited and are highlighting is a place called Comanche Springs, which is in Fort Stockton, Texas, out in the Permian Basin. It used to be one of the 10 largest springs in the state of Texas. It produced as much water every day as Barton Springs in Austin, and it has not flowed reliably in the past 60 years because of groundwater production.

That is just one place. But the more you dig, the more places you visit in Texas, from the Panhandle all the way down to South Texas and to the East, the more you realize that creeks, streams and springs that were what brought people there in the earliest days of settlement have disappeared. And that can happen very quickly, within a human lifetime.

So the question we are asking is, “do our desired future conditions actually represent the future we want? Or would they be better described as inevitable future conditions, based on how we are using groundwater today?”  

Trib+Water: What guided what water sources you visit in this project?

Leurig: We wanted to try to capture as large a swath of the state as we could, to get us away from the way that people typically tend to understand water in Texas, which is very local. The debate, the way that we legally manage groundwater production in the state of Texas is left to local control, that can be defined as small as a county.

The way that people connect with water tends to be very local, the water that they directly interact with. The battles over water, like what we are seeing with the Electro Purification deal in Hays County, that is a very local issue as well.

In all of that interpretation of what is happening in Texas around groundwater as a local issue, I think we have lost the bigger picture that the challenges of groundwater management for a future sustainable water supply are very similar in many areas of the state.

Across the state, there is a lack of real funding for science monitoring for groundwater. There are local battles being contested that all kind of fall back to the same state laws, that artificially disconnect these two resources, the water below ground and the water above ground. 

In reality, when you look at river basins and aquifers across the state of Texas, water is anything but local. Water in some parts of the state moves across huge territories and if you look at most of the cities in Texas, where their water comes from is hundreds of miles away. The decision made hundreds of miles away, in groundwater production, can actually directly affect the water supply of cities that in no way have the ability to participate in that decision making and how that water is used. We are seeing that in Austin, and a lot of other places.

So where we chose to go is partly based on trying to connect regions that are actually directly connected to each other through hydrology, but have never before had dialogue or any sense of connectedness.

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