With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
David Todd is the executive director of the Conservation History Association of Texas. He recently co-authored the Texas Landscape Project with Jonathan Ogren.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Could you explain what the project was about and what spurred you to work on it?
David Todd: The Texas Landscape Project is a project of the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s a book just out of Texas A&M Press. I wrote the book and prepared the data, and then Jonathan Ogren prepared the finished maps. The idea behind it was to try to make stories about conservation — of land, water, air quality, wildlife, energy — more accessible, more easily imagined and visualized, by using maps.
In addition to being maybe more accessible, we thought it might also be a way to help people link themselves to where they are in Texas, what their local community is, what their watershed is, what their ecoregion is, so that they start thinking maybe a little bit more in those kinds of terms.
Trib+Water: Can you highlight some of the kinds of issues you focus on?
Todd: There are chapters on land, water, energy, air quality, wildlife. A lot of these chapters come back to stories of development and settlement of the state.
There’s one chapter, which I think is really intriguing, that shows all the old historic trails that crisscross Texas. Some of them were cattle trails and some of them were pioneer settlement trails; some of them are the paths that were used by Native American, very old.
But most of those trails, especially out west of the 100th meridian in West Texas, relied on natural springs that gave travelers access to water in really dry parts of the state. We built a map where you can see that many of these trails would not have been possible today because many of those springs are now dry, due to over-pumping in West Texas and because of overgrazing.
I think it tells an interesting story both about the development of the state and a sort of general history of the state, but also about how conservation issues, water resources, affect all of us in Texas.
Trib+Water: You were speaking to the goal of trying to educate people more about conservation. What kind of exposure do people in Texas otherwise get to information about conservation?
Todd: I think that a lot of Texans, myself included, we learn about the environment often through headlines — the stories that appear at the top of the news because there’s been an explosion or a hurricane that has hit the coast, or some sort of high-profile, short-term event. The goal of our book is to try to emphasize that a lot of these things have very long histories.
I give a couple of examples: You think about an explosion at a petrochemical plant down the coast on the Houston Ship Channel. Oftentimes you can track down the problems in a given refinery to a long pattern of what are called flares or upsets, where the chemical process goes a little bit awry and they have to let off steam, in a sense, and often make a release of petrochemical byproducts.
We’ve mapped a lot of those, and it’s fascinating to see that these things happen every day and involve a lot of hazardous chemicals at a lot of different plants and sites throughout the state. I think that gives a context when you get a terrible catastrophe at one of these plants and to maybe give a little background or history to the kind of hazards that come along with having a modern petrochemical industry.
Another example would be about a hurricane hitting the coast. We have a chapter about these tropical storms that often hit Texas, and we try to emphasize that it’s a very old pattern of storms coming out of the Atlantic and crossing Cuba and then coming in through the Gulf of Mexico and hitting the western Gulf or the northern Gulf of Mexico coasts.
You can see these storms take a very similar route, year in and year out. I think it’s really worthwhile to see that there are these patterns, because there’s this love of the coast. We want to go occupy the coast and visit it, but oftentimes, especially new residents, new visitors to the state, don’t know that it’s a very dangerous part of the world to occupy on a permanent basis.
We’re hoping that the maps, both of the flares and upsets and then the maps of the hurricane routes, will help people just be more aware of the background of what we might see in the headlines of the newspaper on any given day.