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The Q&A: Laura Huffman

In this week's Q&A, we interview Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.

Laura Huffman

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

Laura Huffman is the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas. The Nature Conservancy released a new interactive online application called the Texas Freshwater Explorer, which compiles data and analysis on all of Texas' 23 river basins and 30 aquifers.

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

Trib+Water: What is the Texas Water Explorer?

Laura Huffman: So, the Texas Water Explorer is a compilation of data from a variety of incredibly important categories including water quality, water quantity, governance and economic reliance. All of those are things that we need to understand about water in order to effectively manage water in the state of Texas and make the best decisions possible.

Why is that important? It’s important because, as our state doubles in population, we already know water scarcity is going to be the most important natural resource we have to deal with as a state. The more science and facts we can bring to decision making, the better.

While a lot of this data existed, this is the first time it’s been pulled together. You can look at it at a broad level or, if you have a particular question that you want answered, it allows you to drill into it as well.

Trib+Water: What was the motivation behind the water explorer?

Huffman: The Nature Conservancy has always been a science-based conservation organization, and while the state has in place processes for looking at different aspects of water … we thought there was a real lack of comprehensive data.

So if you’re Dallas and you’re thinking about the Trinity River, it is important to know that, I think, over half of Texans rely on the Trinity River. It’s one of the primary rivers that go into the Gulf of Mexico from Texas. It’s not just a decision about Dallas; it’s about an entire system, including the Gulf of Mexico.

We simply thought there was a lack of comprehensive information that was easily accessible and because it wasn’t easily accessible, people wouldn’t use it in decision making. We wanted it easy so that it would be used.

Trib+Water: How long did it take to build this?

Huffman: It’s a lot of effort. It took two years, and it’s extremely important to say … one of the things that we thought was really important was to build this in the presence of, and with, partners, many of whom own the databases that we’d be collecting.

We have a lot of state agencies that were involved, universities involved and we had a lot of other conservation organizations involved. It really was a community, and, by community, I mean those people who are either public, private or nonprofit interests in water, mostly public and nonprofit. ...

Sometimes on a scientific endeavor, you do peer reviews of finished products. We wanted to build that peer review process into the creation of the explorer.

Trib+Water: With the explorer already built, will you be updating it as you get more data?

Huffman: It’s going to have to be updated. Otherwise, it’ll only be useful for a short period of time. This is accepting responsibility for some of the databases maintained by other entities, I should say that. Part of this is our long term commitment to Texas. …

One of the things that the Nature Conservancy organization created that really started to drive conservation all around the country and ultimately around the world was called the Natural Heritage Database. It documented rarity among species and in almost every state where it was created, those databases are now owned and operated by parks organizations … and that was how we started to think about prioritization of conservancy in the area of land protection.

I think (the Texas Water Explorer) will help us prioritize in water. I view this as the water analogue to that body of work. It is in keeping with the kind of databases that TNC created and maintained historically.

Trib+Water: Who was this built for?

Huffman: We wanted it to be useful across a broad spectrum of users.

There’s no question this will be useful for those institutions and individuals who are making decisions about water, and certainly scientists will understand the information at a much quicker rate than perhaps lay individuals. I’m not a trained conservationist but I’ve found the information to be interesting and it tells a story. …

Trib+Water: What do you think is the most pressing water issue in Texas today?

Huffman: I think one of the statements you hear the most often is that there are a lot of places in Texas where our water has been over allocated. And so that would make water quantity … one of the most pressing issues in water today. The reason is, we’re growing at such a rapid rate and we go from 25 million to 50 million over the next handful of decades. We’re going to need more water supply to support that growing population.

There’s no question that we can use conservation as a mechanism to reduce the per capita demand on water, but 50 million people will be relying on more water than what we have today. One is a growing economy. That is why water quantity is so important. The other reason is water quantity is directly related to water quality. If our rivers, streams and aquifers are functioning at a much lower level then they’ve become susceptible to water quality problems as well.

Trib+Water: How do we go about solving these issues?

Huffman: It’s complicated, and it’s going to take strategies that are very well executed in the urban environment, in agriculture, in energy and industry, and on behalf of the environment. Those are the four categorical users of water.

Each of those categorical users can and must do business differently going into the future. Cities are going to have to rethink conservation. We’ve got some Texas cities that have done a remarkable job of reducing their per capita water use.

We’re going to have to start thinking well beyond things like replacing fixtures inside houses. We’re going to have to get much more aggressive about landscaping and what kind of landscape people are planting, how often they water that landscape.

We’re going to have to be thinking about source water protection so that cities avoid unnecessary treatment costs, which can make your utility bill very high.

In agriculture we need to be looking at a specific use of water so we are … growing food in the most water efficient way possible, and we’ve got work to do there.

In energy and industry, making sure we understand the connection between water and energy is incredibly important. …

Trib+Water: What is your personal stake in water issues?

Huffman: I believe water is the most important natural resource in Texas. … I think that the next 50 years are going to have opportunities for us to get this right, but there are going to be opportunities that come and go. Once decisions are made, it’s hard to undo them. For me, I think it’s the most important conservation issue today.

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