Water Program Officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
In this issue’s Q&A, Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, interviews Emily Warren Armitano, Water Program Officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation (CGMF).
Emily R. Warren Armitano is the water program officer for CGMF in Austin. For more than 20 years, she has been making connections between science and policy that supports natural resource management decisions—engaging communities in caring for their watersheds, land and water conservation strategies, and sustainable use of natural resources in Texas.
Prior to joining CGMF, Armitano held leadership positions at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, acting as principal manager for the center’s strategy and programs, and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, acting as the policy and regulatory coordinator. Armitano has also served as program and management consultant to the United Nations, served on the Hill Country Alliance Board, and served as president of the Colorado River Alliance Board. She has a B.S. in Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution, an M.S. in Environmental Science, and a M.P.A. in natural resource management and environmental policy, and is working on a Ph.D. in Geography.
For what purpose did Cynthia and George Mitchell establish the foundation and why is water one of the areas that the foundation is focused on?
The Mitchell’s established the foundation in 1978 on the premise of fostering principles exemplified in their values—with a vision of supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy focused primarily in Texas.
When Mr. Mitchell signed the Giving Pledge sponsored by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, they made public their long-held private intent that the majority of their wealth would be donated to philanthropic initiatives. Since 1978, the foundation and the family have distributed or pledged an estimated $500 million in grants.
The foundation made significant gifts to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 and 2001 to study the scientific merit of sustainability, with the goal of launching the field of sustainability science.
Our board and staff are committed to carrying out Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell’s philanthropic legacy—supporting the issues and organizations that reflect their values and vision. We utilize a sustainability science approach in our sustainability programs due to its rigorous scientific framework, interdisciplinary approach, and focus on real-world challenges of balancing economic, social, and environmental trade-offs.
Clean energy was the foundation’s first sustainability-related program—dedicated to minimizing demand for energy, while meeting demand through the cleanest energy options possible.
Water is, arguably, the most important long-term natural resource issue facing the state of Texas. Since projections of water availability in Texas show that we won’t be able to meet our future demands if nothing changes, water is intrinsically tied to a sustainable future. Water was the foundation’s second sustainability program—dedicated to looking at the big questions about water and finding solution-based answers, balancing a rapidly growing population, economy, and demand for energy.
You have worked for over 20 years making connections between science and policy, and engaging with communities in managing their watersheds. How has that prepared you for your new role as the water program officer for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation?
I have had the great fortune of working in Texas for the past 20 years on water and other natural resources challenges facing our state. In that time, I have learned a number of lessons that I feel have prepared me for my new position at the foundation.
Texas leads the nation for fastest-growing cities, with half of the country’s top ten metropolitan areas located in the state. In fact, 85 percent of Texans live in urban areas and we rely on the working farms and ranches of rural Texas to protect our water supplies, wildlife, and habitat. For the most part, rural Texans have deep ties to those natural resources and private landowners steward their lands without any compensation expectations for the benefits they provide the state. Meanwhile, people who live in urban centers are more and more disconnected from those lands, from understanding where their water comes from, and the role that rural Texas plays in providing vital resources. If there’s one thing the past couple of decades has taught me, it’s that connecting people to nature is of utmost importance for our future sustainability.
We also live in a state of water inequities. Some communities have access to clean, reliable drinking water while others do not. Some communities, especially in the west and south, experience drought much more intensely than others. And some communities experience floods, particularly on the coast and in Central Texas, more violently than the rest of the state. At a local level, groups of people—especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or people of color—feel the effects of climate change through water more powerfully than others in their communities. People in leadership positions have the best intentions to represent their community’s interests and needs. But too many voices get left out and have never had a seat at the decision-making table. If we want to use our water resources sustainably and be resilient in the face of climate change, those voices must be heard. To quote Earthea Nance, “the future of water is equity.”
I cannot underscore the value of building relationships and trust enough. Because of the bottom-up approach to water management, even the most brilliant solutions won’t be implemented without willing participants, partnerships, or communities. As a practitioner, I have seen the important role philanthropy can play in finding those brilliant solutions and building trust. Philanthropy can take risks on identifying and testing out big ideas, where government or private industry can’t. Philanthropy can also catalyze new initiatives or amplify existing ones.
Lastly, my years working in water have always reminded me that I am not an expert, that there are amazing people doing great work in water today, and that there is much yet to be discovered.
What are the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s goals for water in Texas?
The foundation envisions a future with ample and healthy waters above and below ground that sustain rich, diverse ecosystems while minimizing effects of infrastructure on water quantity and quality throughout Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.
Consistent with the sustainability science approach that characterizes the foundation’s grant-making, the Water Program aims to increase the scientific understanding of water issues in Texas, which in turn inform the design of effective policy and management approaches to meet environmental water needs.
The Water Program’s five major goals are to:
- advance watershed scale co-management of surface and groundwater;
- design and promote integrated water management models;
- accelerate and expand environmental flows work;
- bolster and connect water quality work; and
- explore net positive water development and delivery as a new model.
What are some the key efforts that the foundation is supporting to achieve the goals discussed above?
The fundamental focus for support in 2019 has been an investment in statewide water organizations that work on a wide range of water issues including water policy, science, groundwater, communications, urban water, and open water data. In addition, CGMF is supportive of recommendations from the “Advancing One Water in Texas” report that the foundation released in spring 2018. To that end, we recently hosted the U.S. Water Alliance’s One Water Summit that took place in Austin this September. In terms of water quality, we are taking an economic lens to investigate the social costs of water pollution in Texas. Lastly, we are supporting water advocacy efforts that span topics from exploring policies for green infrastructure and integrated water resources management to targeted community engagement in San Antonio and along the Gulf Coast.
Are there any geographic areas of Texas that are of special interest to the foundation?
CGMF’s Sustainability Programs take a systems view to finding a sustainable future in the face of climate change and population growth. As such, the foundation looks at sustainability challenges holistically—through all of its programs. There are currently two key geographies where CGMF is focusing: the San Antonio Bay Watershed and the greater Big Bend region of far West Texas.
Although initially focused on the San Antonio Bay Watershed, the foundation’s Headwaters to Tidewaters initiative is working towards sustainable, coordinated management of surface water, groundwater, and land at the watershed scale to ensure ample, clean water that supports a thriving economy, healthy communities and rich, diverse ecosystems throughout Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.
In far West Texas, energy development continues to accelerate. All forms of energy—oil, gas, wind, and solar—are central to the Texas economy. But the greater Big Bend region is much more than a source of energy resources. Everyone who has a stake in the area’s future deserves input into how energy development is balanced with both community priorities and protection of natural resources. We’re listening to community residents and landowners to help minimize impact to our water, land, and air in order to conserve a unique Texas treasure.
Does the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation work with other philanthropic organizations to address water issues, and if so what are some examples?
Absolutely. Whenever possible, we work closely with other philanthropies and non-profit organizations that work on clean energy, sustainability, water, land, and the environment. For example, over the past several years, our Water Program has been actively participating in the Water Funder Initiative, which is a collaborative of funders dedicated to identifying and activating promising solutions in the western United States, where water scarcity and reliability of clean water are urgent issues.
Reporter and Associate Editor for The Texas Tribune
In this issue’s Q&A, Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, interviews Kiah Collier. Kiah Collier is a reporter and associate editor for The Texas Tribune, with a focus on energy and environment. Collier has reported for publications across Texas over the past decade, including the San Angelo Standard-Times, Reuters, the Austin-American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle. Her reporting has garnered a variety of local, state and national awards, including a Peabody in 2017 for her work on a project that examined the Houston area’s extreme vulnerability to hurricanes. She is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.
What inspired your interest in water, and when did you start covering water issues? How long did it take you to master the unique aspects of Texas water?
My first job out of school was at the San Angelo Standard-Times in West Texas, where I covered city and state government. That was about a year before the devastating 2011 drought. The city was totally dependent on reservoirs for drinking water and they were rapidly evaporating. At one point, it had about 12 months of water left. As you can imagine, it was a big focus for the city council. At the same time, the first big fracking boom was ramping up in the region and energy producers were using a massive amount of fresh water. People’s water wells started running dry. In reporting on all of that, I came to learn about Texas water law and how complicated it is. I would say it took me a few months of constantly interviewing attorneys and water experts and reading books to really feel like I had a firm grasp of it—but I still feel like there are things I don’t know!
What inspired you to travel to the Netherlands to see the Dutch approach to flood prevention and mitigation? What has been the reaction to the story that resulted from your trip?
For years now, I’ve been reporting on a policy and scientific debate about how best to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes. Researchers started sounding the alarm after 2008’s Hurricane Ike, saying that storm modeling showed the storm—already the costliest in state history at the time—could have been significantly worse if it had hit just a few miles down the coast, near the western end of Galveston Island.
One of those researchers, Bill Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston, unveiled a storm protection plan a few months after Ike. Nicknamed the “Ike Dike,” it was very much inspired by a world-renowned system in the Netherlands that has successfully helped guard the extremely low-lying country from North Sea surges. (No one has died in a flood there in 66 years!) A few years later, after much pressure from Merrell and researchers at Rice University, who have proposed their own storm protection plans over the years, the state and local government launched a formal study. And the project they’re now looking at looks a lot like the Ike Dike. Point being, the Dutch system is now officially relevant. So when I got an invitation from A&M to embed with a group of students who were going over there to learn about it, I said yes. (After getting the green-light from my editors, of course.)
The Netherlands is moving away from relying solely on structural solutions to flooding and is incorporating more nature-based solutions such as the “Room for the River” project you referred to in your article. Do you think that potential solutions to flood impacts in Texas such as the Ike Dike are behind the curve in focusing too much on structural solutions?
If you ask people like Merrell or even government officials about this, they’ll tell you that there is room for all of those solutions—they refer to it as “multi-line defense” —but that blocking storm surge at the coast is the most important thing to accomplish. One of Merrell’s fellow researchers at A&M, Sam Brody, told me he had been skeptical of the Ike Dike concept at first because he’s a big believer in more nature-based solutions to prevent flooding (mainly inland, rain-based flooding, which is a different issue), but he’s now convinced of that, too.
While reporting the story, I ran across this really incredulous essay by a Dutch social scientist that said the Netherlands is now able to focus on these romantic, nature-based solutions only because it has already manipulated nature. Certainly, there are major environmental concerns about the Ike Dike and a lot of people are really skeptical that it’s worth it. But other people say the environmental impacts it will have pale in comparison to those a worst-case storm would cause.
It should be noted that the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office are now looking at putting fortified sand dunes along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula rather than a big, concrete levee along the main roadways there, which is what they had initially proposed. The main concern is with the storm surge gate system they want to install between Galveston and Bolivar because it would hinder an interchange of water between the bay and the Gulf that is crucial for marine life.
Which of your articles on Texas water are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of how thorough and prolific my coverage of water issues has been over the years. In San Angelo, I recall writing about water issues on a weekly basis for at least a year and I got so many reader emails thanking me for keeping them informed [Texas’ second oil boom costs precious water and Amid drought, Irion County residents concerned about use of fresh water for hydrofracking].
That said, I’d have to say my longstanding favorite is the first, big story I did in San Angelo that exposed how much water energy producers were using to frack during such a bad drought. That story and subsequent follow-ups got the attention of statewide and national publications, which sent reporters to the area to write stories that looked a whole lot like the ones I had already published.
Which Texas water story surprised you the most when you were researching it?
When I first started reporting on people’s water wells going dry out in West Texas during the 2011 drought, rule of capture obviously came up, and that concept is always mind-blowing to people who don’t know about it, and it was mind-blowing to me at the time (see links to articles in previous answer). Of course, it doesn’t apply in places that have groundwater conservation districts, but GCDs are also really limited in enforcing it and many in West Texas continue to approve pumping for industrial uses more than some think they should. But what are you supposed to do when you basically have no enforcement authority?
Which Texas water story troubled you the most?
The potential threat to the San Solomon Springs from the oil and gas production has been troubling because of the beauty and uniqueness of Balmorhea swimming pool. Apache Corporation swears it’s being really careful about it, but it’s still unnerving. Well casings don’t always work, and the area is particularly vulnerable to groundwater contamination because it sits atop an aquifer encased in karst.
Do you see significant differences in your reader’s interest in water quality stories as opposed to water quantity stories?
Yes. When a drought fades, so does reader interest and, therefore, coverage. That said, stories I’ve written in recent years on reports that expose water contamination—particularly in rural areas that can’t afford to upkeep water treatment facilities—have gotten a lot of page views. I think people care about both, but certainly running out of water is a much freakier concept to people.
Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico
In this issue’s Q&A, Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, interviews Roberto F. Salmón Castelo, Mexican Commissioner for the International Boundary and Water Commission (Comisión Internacional de Limites y Aguas, CILA).
Commissioner Castelo has a wide range of experience in hydraulic projects. He was Northwest Regional Manager of the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) from 2002 to 2006 and from then until 2008 he served as General Manager of the Northwest Basin Unit based in Hermosillo, Sonora. Additionally, Commissioner Castelo was Planning and Special Projects Director for the Sonora Center for Research and Development in Natural Resources and has remained a partner in a variety of companies that carry out basin management projects and environmental studies. He has a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Arizona, where he also received a Master of Science degree in the same field. Additionally, he is doing advanced studies in Water Resource Administration at the University of Arizona and is currently a candidate for a doctoral degree there.
Established in 1889, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) has responsibility for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico and settling differences that may arise in their application. The IBWC is an international body composed of the United States Section and the Mexican Section, each headed by an Engineer-Commissioner appointed by his/her respective President. Each section is administered independently of the other. The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) is a federal government agency and is headquartered in El Paso, Texas. The IBWC operates under the foreign policy guidance of the U.S. Department of State. The Mexican Section is under the administrative supervision of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is headquartered in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
How has the IBWC changed during your tenure as Commissioner and what accomplishments during that time do you consider to be the most significant?
- We are more open to the public, more engaged with stakeholders.
- We are having more contact with local people, we have created Citizen’s Forums in every border city where we have an office (Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Cd. Juárez, Cd. Acuña, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa).
- We have strengthened our ties with universities and research centers.
- We have concluded five relevant agreements to address scarcity of water and low reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin.
Will Mexico’s top priorities for the IBWC change under the new President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador?
No. Priorities remain the same.
Currently, there is very little in the 1944 Treaty that discusses how groundwater resources should be allocated between Mexico and the United States. Do you think Minute 242 gives IBWC the scope to negotiate groundwater-sharing issues in the future?
Minute 242 certainly mentions a groundwater agreement in the future. Meanwhile, the Commission has continued with technical studies and consultations regarding the main aquifers along our common border; exchanging information, modeling their physical behavior and keeping meetings on a regular basis.
We just celebrated at El Paso, a Binational Summit oriented exclusively to trans-boundary aquifers shared between Mexico and the US, aimed at understanding the physical, administrative, and legal challenges that both countries will have to face in order to have a fair use of those waters in the benefit of the two countries.
Now that you are meeting with U.S. IBWC Commissioner Jayne Harkins what are some of the areas of common interest that have emerged?
- Sanitation issues along the border are right now at the top of the Commission´s agenda.
- Issues in the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers continue to be regular topics of discussion in our regular meetings.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge(s) facing Mexico and the United States over the next 20 years regarding the water resources that we share?
- Keeping the 1944 Treaty current, which can be accomplished by the use of “Minutes,” a tool provided by the Treaty to address situations that were not foreseen at the time the Treaty was signed.
- Understanding Climate Change and how it affects the international basins.
*Click here to read Texas+Water’s March Q&A with Jayne Harkins, U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
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