Friday, December 6, 2013

November 2013 ESSENTIAL Class Day Takeaways

Guest post from ESSENTIAL Class of 2014 participant Mike Grable, reflecting on the November class day on Austin's natural environment. Mike is president at Lone Star Transmission, LLC.

In preparing for our November session on the natural environment, we read about Robert Gifford's seven "Dragons of Inaction" that can hinder pro-environmental action. Dr. Gifford wrote of the Dragons in terms of climate issues, but with apologies to him I'd like to apply a few of them to the drought that continues to threaten Central Texas, and the ways in which our class discussions provided insights to tangible actions to protect Austin's water future.

1. It's not really affecting me here and now and it's really uncertain, so I'm not going to act.

Think of how much rain has fallen recently in Austin, as we've seen the final day of ACL Music Fest canceled due to "Zilker Lake" and then Halloween floods destroy low-lying neighborhoods. It can cause cognitive dissonance to see the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue underwater, and yet still understand that a lack of rain in the Highland Lakes watersheds means we are still very water-deficient. Andy Sansom of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State spoke of the fact that no new Texas reservoirs have been created in 25 years, a "drought" that hopefully will end with Proposition 6 and the funds it provides for the state water plan. The needs and the opportunities are both enormous when we look beyond the ends of our noses.

2. I'll take development over "environmentalism," please; why should we hinder economic growth when nature will do what it will do anyway?

A zero-sum choice between economic growth and water protection is often a false choice. Take a fact noted separately both by Andy Sansom and later by Laura Huffman of The Nature Conservancy: the average Texas municipal water system loses approximately thirty percent of the water due to aging pipes and poor system maintenance. Reinvesting in this infrastructure is both a development and a water benefit. Similarly, Andy pointed out that the $400 million that Prop 6 earmarks for conservation and reuse is an enormous opportunity for public-private partnerships and innovative financing: we can't finance conservation and reuse the way we do the construction of reservoirs (by selling the water), so entrepreneurial thinking is needed!

3. I don't use more resources than the average Austinite, so why should I change my behavior if the neighbors aren't?

This is a tough one, and requires a high degree of motivation and education to overcome basic human nature and feelings of fairness. In some commercial contexts, it can even be a competitive advantage: just ask Natasha Madison of Ecochic Floral, who is doing well by doing good: her focus on sustainable floral design includes the re-purposing of all gray water and enormous energy and water savings by using local plants. Others of us can look to the savings over time on our bills when we convert to dual-flush toilets and efficient shower heads (both standard in the W Hotel, as explained by General Manager Drew McQuade) or to a little less St. Augustine and a few more native plants.

4. I am not convinced that I should trust the "experts" who are telling me there is a problem.

This one is easy in the context of drought. Just go look at how the Sometimes Islands in Lake Travis have become the Permanent Peninsula. Andy Sansom also reminded us that the 1947-57 "Drought of Record"—which we are in the process of passing—included one 15-hour storm in 1952 during which Fredericksburg recorded 26 inches of rain. Lake Travis re-filled instantly. Think about what 1953-57 would have been like without that one freak storm, and then think about where Austin might be in 2014-18 if the drought continues and we don't get a similar lucky day upstream.

5. I've made a few changes, surely that's enough.

The final "Dragon" is one of the biggest challenges, and the education required to overcome it is one of our biggest civic leadership opportunities. This is also where I'd again emphasize that economics and the environment are not entirely at odds, a theme that ran through Laura Huffman’s remarks; for example, government and civic leaders outside of Texas use water concerns and the drought to warn businesses against investing in the Lone Star State. The good news is there is plenty of low-hanging fruit in the form of some of the initiatives described here, and I look forward to working with the Best Class Ever to help move them forward!

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.

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