Five Questions for Andy Sansom

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Andy Sansom

This is Part Two in an occasional series of Q&As with Texans involved in issues of the environment and energy. (Read Part One, with Bee Moorhead, here.)

As one of Texas’ most-respected and best-known conservationists, Andy Sansom probably needs no introduction to many readers. Here are just a few of the highlights from a long and storied career:

From 1990 to 2001, Sansom served as executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, an agency that he helped drag into the 21st century.

Before that he served as the executive director of the Nature Conservancy. Sansom has been a tireless champion of public land and is responsible in large part for adding Big Bend Ranch State Park to the state portfolio – an acquisition that Molly Ivins called “a once-in-a-lifetime deal, a chance to grab and keep a chunk of wilderness that we’ll never get again.”

Sansom is also one of Texas’ top authorities on water. Last year, Sansom published Water in Texas: An Introduction, which actually manages to make sense of the topic.

Sansom currently heads the Rivers System Institute at Texas State University in San Marcos.

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1) You wrote in Texas Monthly recently, “The next few years present both a last chance and an unprecedented opportunity to ensure sufficient water for our children.” Is a water crisis bearing down on us in Texas? If so, what can we do to avoid it?

Texas is losing rural and agricultural land faster than any other state.  Virtually all of our watersheds are on private property and thus subject to being covered with subdivisions, parking lots, and other urban development which inhibits their vital function in the water cycle.

The slowdown in our economy gives us a window to acquire critical watershed areas through acquisition or conservation easements. This window will ultimately close as the economy heats up again and we will have lost an historic opportunity.

 

2) Texas just emerged from a drought arguably worse than the so-called “drought of record” in the ’50s. Tree ring studies have shown that there have been dry periods in Texas’ past much worse than anything experienced in modern history. Climate change presents an additional challenge, with most climate models predicting drier conditions over much of the state. Given these facts, do you think Texas is prepared for droughts of the future?

Traditionally, we have used the drought of the 1950’s as our so-called “drought of record,”  which is the level of drought our water planners have considered a “worst-case” scenario.

At least three factors have rendered this planning inadequate to prepare us for future droughts:  First, research involving indicators such as tree rings and fossil records tell us that our part of the continent has sustained far worse droughts than the 1950’s over time; second, the changes taking place in our climate will place additional stresses on the water cycle in the form of extreme weather conditions; and third, we now depend for more than 50% of our supplies on groundwater, a situation which has created an unprecedented level of pumping which magnifies the effect of drought by orders of magnitude as indicated in the past several years.


3) For many of our most cherished rivers, the government has appropriated more water than actually exists. This creates the possibility that if all those rights were exercised, there would be no water left to flow down to the Gulf. Presumably, unused water rights will be increasingly used in the future, posing a threat to the very existence of certain rivers. How do we disentangle ourselves from this situation? Do you have hope that the rather complicated SB 3 environmental flows process will bear fruit?

Our Rivers are threatened as never before due to the rapidly increasing demand on a resource that is already over-allocated in many cases.

For the first time, the Legislature, in Senate Bill 3, has established a process for protecting “environmental flows” in our rivers and streams, theoretically to ensure that after all of our agricultural, municipal, and industrial demands for water are met, they will continue to flow. This process, while ponderous and complicated, holds the promise that both stakeholders and scientists can devise flow requirements for the future.

The bigger question is once such requirements are established, where the required water will come from as, in all likelihood, it is already committed to other purposes.

 

4) In 2001, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department set a goal of adding 1.4 million acres of parkland to the state system by 2030. How are we doing on that goal? Given the explosive growth in Texas, what are the consequences if we fail to add sufficient new parkland?

You would need to check with the Department to see how they are doing on that goal.  I doubt very much. I would suspect that there has been less than 10,000 acres of acquisition since 2001 and they have actually disposed of some property, unfortunately.

The Legislature has emphatically refused to appropriate any funds for acquisition and thus we still rank among the lowest states in parkland per capita.  If we do not take action soon, the economy is going to recover and a great opportunity will be lost.  (The greatest period of acquisition in the Department’s history took place during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980’s.)

Long term, we not only put the remaining wildlife habitat, open space, watershed and recharge areas of the state at risk, we deny our citizens the opportunity for activities that we know from extensive research, increase their health and well being by refusing to provide them with sufficient playgrounds, outdoor recreation areas and preserves.

5) Water is expected to be the main theme for the 2011 session of the Texas Legislature. In your opinion, what are the two or three most critical things the legislators need to do?

In my opinion, it remains to be seen whether water, in fact, will be a major issue in the 2011 session.  Absent a crisis, the Legislature has historically been loathe to take on issues of such controversy, significance, and complexity.

Having said that and hoping the Legislature will put some emphasis on water, we need to make sure there is funding for environmental water components in any infrastructure funding bill based on the Texas Water Plan. Such funding would be used for Conservation, Watershed and Recharge Protection and Environmental Flow research and investment.

Secondly, we need to continue to improve our groundwater management system, strengthening planning, research, regulation, enhancement and connection in law and policy with surface water.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.