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The Q&A: Kenneth Cook

In this week's Q&A, we interview Kenneth Cook, chief executive officer of WaterCentric.

Kenneth Cook, CEO of Water Centric.

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

Kenneth Cook is the chief executive officer at WaterCentric and founded Acequia in 2001. Cook serves on the North Texas Commission, is chairman of the board for Trinity Waters and is the director of Friends of Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. Cook became interested in water conservation while working in the turf production industry as a founding partner in Crenshaw-Doguet Turf Grass.

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

Trib+Water: What is the current state of water in Texas today? Are we in trouble?

Kenneth Cook: I think that our state is short of water. It wasn't until I spent some time down in Australia in 2009 studying climate shifts and drought and water capacities in that country, that I really probably firsthand felt the impact of what we're doing in Texas. And maybe we're a little behind the times and we don't really know how much water we've got that's available that's able to serve the population of the state.

Conservation strategies, I think, are the quickest and easiest way to fill those gaps. At this point in my experience in working with technologies and deploying those, the state as a whole has been a little behind the curve in adopting and implementing strategies that work towards conservation as our quickest new source of water. [The state] opted more for the stand on education on the state of water that we have and long-term construction projects that require us to spend every dime before we get that first drop. 

Trib+Water: Can you talk about some of those quick and easy conservation strategies you mentioned?

Cook: Oh, definitely. I've been very involved in my career in the commercial landscape sector looking at outdoor watering because what we've seen nationwide, and particularly in Texas, is it's one of the largest uses of water in our residential sector and commercial property sector.

It's been relatively inexpensive, so it hasn't been a budget concern for commercial and residential property owners in the past. But what we've seen is that it's the largest area of waste and the area that we've got the most and quickest ability to control.

So, through the years, we've looked at smart technologies that help us monitor and meter the water that's going out – to make sure there's not any leaks or duplication of efforts of valves that are stuck on, et cetera – that cause us, when we think we're watering for "X," we're actually getting "2X" of the water out there.

We have technologies available to us that are monitoring and calculating soil moisture to suspend irrigation at times when it's not necessary. One of the biggest fallacies I see across the state in all of the technology platforms that have been implemented is the fact that they typically still, once you start the irrigation, water every zone. What we've found, when you really analyze that, is that not every part of lawn, not every part of the landscape, needs to be watered every time.

The second part of our technological advancements typically comes when the property owners are incentivized to step up. When the price of water hits a point or availability of water hits a point, typically private investment will come in and help solve that problem.

And more often than not, what we've typically seen when we're trying to manage that water from the municipal sector is we see restrictions or the big stick approach. By restricting it, like Austin has done recently with the one-day-a-week watering ordinance that's gone into play, all of the early adopters of technologies that have been working for as long as 10 or 12 years now have just lost their investments.

So the early adoption community, the private side of that three-way partnership, tends to now not want to continue to invest because of punitive actions against everybody versus those who haven't been early adopters. That seems to restrict the value of conservation in our state.

Trib+Water: Do you think that's the biggest roadblock then, for implementing these strategies?

Cook: I think it's one of the greatest roadblocks, how fragmented our water industry is as a whole, not just in Texas but everywhere. You have so many different utilities with so many different restrictions and different budgets and different debt loads. And you've got so many different property owners, property managers, landscape managers operating, that it's very fragmented and not centralized to where there's a central source of community, so to speak, with our water.

We're starting to see, and what we observed in Australia, is that we have to look at basin-wide approaches instead of metropolitan-wide approaches. Basin-wide is what impacts the lower Colorado, what impacts the Brazos, what impacts the Trinity River as a whole and not just what fits Dallas-Fort Worth and maybe doesn't fit Houston.

Because they're all in that same basin of the Trinity River, so to speak. So having a basin-wide approach with property owners who are uniquely tied to that particular source of water and who are engaged, there was an incentive for them to be early adopters of technologies and strategies that help conserve and would definitely help our state and its water resources.

I think the other piece in that basin-wide approach is just what we saw in that news article out of Austin about a massive water leak in the infrastructure. We don't seem to be focused enough on repairing antiquated and dilapidated infrastructure around the country than we are in seeking that new massive project. And it's a shame to go out and spend billions of dollars over decades of time to create a lot of debt and need to increase water rates when we can simply stick to what we've got and solve a great deal of that problem.

Trib+Water: How do you go about pushing policy in that direction to create those basin-wide approaches? Does the state Legislature need to be more involved? 

Cook: I definitely think it's going to have to come from the Legislature. What we've seen in the last couple of decades is that we really have moved the state to where we've implemented groundwater districts across the state, and we're starting to get the groundwork of control of independent districts. When you're looking at the groundwater districts and the regional water districts, et cetera, they become competing factions on water as a whole. At times, all are in conflict.

I think our next step in legislation is we are going to have to realize that all of our water is tied together and then start to unify that structure and measure that water. Transfers coming from one area of the state to another create difficulties and create hardships in areas of the state that were used to the water. Taking water out of our aquifers that in some areas is plentiful and moving it to areas where there's not, that starts to have an impact.

So it's got to be looked at in a unified strategy with some implementations of technologies that have long served to monitor the water, monitoring the water quality that is coming from all the sources. 

Trib+Water: You mention Australia, and I wonder if there is another state or if Australia is the example of somewhere that is doing water conservation right and could serve as an example for Texas. 

Cook: I think Australia is our North American partner, that we're looking to them for our intellectual property as a whole because they've gone through long-term drought. And to be quite honest, Australia looked overseas to Germany and other areas that have suffered some of these climatic shifts before they actually did. Ultimately, what we see in Australia when you look at the climactic patterns of the globe, we see in the southern parts of the United States and particularly in Texas. So, I think it's a good model.

I think the second thing they did that our state needs to, for sure, look at doing, even if our country didn't come to that consensus, they put a value on water by putting together a water trading system. Basically like trading commodities in the state, so people who had water rights could sell those water rights for the highest and best use.

So it really started to put the visual perception that water isn't free, and it costs money to obtain it. It costs money to process it, and it costs money to transport it from one place to the other. I think that's something we're going to have to look at as part of that unifying structure, instead of creating hundreds of different units and more fragmentation, we need to start to bring it all into one water in Texas.

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