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The Q&A: Tom Arsuffi

In this week's Q&A, we interview Tom Arsuffi, director of the Llano River Field Station and chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan Science Advisory Committee.

Tom Arsuffi is director of the Llano River Field Station in Junction. He is also current chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan Science Advisory Committee.

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

Tom Arsuffi is director of the Llano River Field Station and chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan Science Advisory Committee.

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

Trib+Water: Tell me more about your work as director of the Llano River Field Station.

Tom Arsuffi: Field stations are usually located in unique areas that have important natural resources like springs, lakes, rivers and forests. We’re doing work on watersheds, springs and outreach in the Texas Hill Country.

Last October, a project we’ve been working on for three years for the North and South Llano rivers was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The approval was for an Upper Llano watershed protection plan. We’ve been working with other stakeholders — including landowners, ranchers, county judges and mayors — to identify issues and propose solutions. It’s a really proactive approach to protecting our natural resources. 

Trib+Water: Why is maintaining the watershed so important?

Arsuffi: Rather than spending money to fix watersheds, there’s an analysis that shows it’s five times less expensive to keep a watershed healthy than it is to fix it after it becomes impaired. Water runs downhill. This is a critical scientific fact. It’s all associated with physics but it has a tremendous amount of ecological, hydrological, political and social meaning.

All the stewardship that landowners and ranchers do in this watershed has tremendous positive benefits downstream and there should be recognition for that. It connects to what people are doing in the uplands. During dry times, the South Llano river provides up to 50 percent of flows into the Highland Lakes for Austin.

Trib+Water: Can you speak to the importance of being proactive in the water industry?

Arsuffi: One of my favorite words is “proactive.” Being a scientist and an ecologist, you can see things happening or about to happen, and if you can head them off before they become real big problems, that’s advantageous for everybody.

Part of that has to do with education. The watershed plan involved a lot of education with regards to the various sectors of the general public that have a stake in these natural resources that may not have the scientific expertise to understand everything.

Trib+Water: What’s the big picture? Why is education important?

Arsuffi: We now have a generation that has largely grown up in cities with little access to nature, water, natural resources and skipping stones. We have a K-12 outdoor school at the field station. We have kids coming from cities and one of our units is astronomy. I heard, "Why is the sky so dirty?" from an eighth grader when they came out to look at the night sky. It’s because it’s the first time they’ve seen the Milky Way.

The nature deficit disorder talks about a generation that’s grown up without access to the outdoors, a technologically-oriented type of society. Those kids have grown up to be voters and they don’t have the knowledge of what nature, natural resources and water are.

If you ask a lot of people where they get their water, the most common answer is their faucets. The nature deficit disorder deals with environmental literacy, or the lack thereof. That disease has also infected teachers. If teachers are afraid to go outside or don’t have the skillset to teach STEM content using woods, prairies, grasslands, meadows, backyards, schoolyards, then that aspect of environmental education is not getting to the students.

Trib+Water: How well do you think the Legislature is handling water issues?

Arsuffi: Environmental literacy applies to our legislators, our politicians, our teachers, our policymakers, our mayors, our county judges and our students. That’s the key to solving a lot of these problems.

The amount of training that legislators get with regard to water issues associated with Texas is concerning. I was told they get a one-day briefing. Clearly, that is not enough and most of that briefing probably had more to do with how do you make laws than a real deep understanding of the variety of water issues and the different sectors.

Trib+Water: What is Texas doing right when it comes to water?

Arsuffi: They're far ahead of most other states with the water planning aspect of it. Part of the problem Texas has is making that relationship between groundwater and surface water. Right now they’re two different sectors and there’s not enough bridging between those two sectors, which are hydrologically inseparable.

Trib+Water: Tell me about your role as chairman of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan Science Advisory Committee.

Arsuffi: People tried to get together after the drought of the '50s to come up with a solution for using the Edwards Aquifer. You’ve got a limited resource, which is the Edwards Aquifer. Then you’ve got four competing groups all trying to stake their claim on that limited water supply.

The irrigators in the west, the city of San Antonio — the largest city in the world whose sole source of water is a single-source aquifer. You’ve got the spring cities — New Braunfels and San Marcos whose local economy is depending on those rivers flowing — and you’ve got the downstream users that depend on flows during dry times.

And nobody can come up with a management plan for the Edwards Aquifer. People were sucking as much water out of it as they could.

The Habitat Conservation Plan and the endangered species act forced these groups to get together and come up with a plan. The plan is actually benefiting all of the parties. It’s because now people know where the water is and how much they’re going to get and what it’s going to cost them. The springs, species, recreation, flows are all protected, and there are better management practices.

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