q&a+water: Robert Mace

q&a+water: Robert Mace

Executive Director, The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

In this issue’s Q&A, Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, interviews Dr. Robert Mace, Executive Director and Chief Water Policy Officer for The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

In addition to his position at the Meadows Center, Mace is also a Professor of Practice in the Department of Geography at Texas State University. He has over 30 years of experience in hydrology, hydrogeology, stakeholder processes and water policy, mostly in Texas. Before joining Texas State University in 2017, Mace worked at the Texas Water Development Board for 17 years ending his career there as the Deputy Executive Administrator for the Water Science and Conservation Office. While at the Board, he worked on understanding groundwater and surface water resources in Texas; advancing water conservation and innovative water technologies such as desalination, aquifer storage and recovery, reuse, and rainwater harvesting; and protecting Texans from floods.

Prior to joining the Texas Water Development Board, Mace worked nine years at the Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas at Austin as a hydrologist and research scientist. He has a B.S. in Geophysics and an M.S. in Hydrology from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and a Ph.D. in Hydrogeology from The University of Texas at Austin.

During your career what accomplishment(s) regarding water are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the friends I’ve made along the way and the people I’ve learned from and, in turn, been able to help. A career is really one learning experience after another and applying what you learned to help people. Probably the most influential time for my career was developing the groundwater model for the Hill Country, which was the model that started the Groundwater Availability Modeling Program for Texas. I still think fondly of that experience, working with a Texas Water Development Board team motivated by Senate Bill 1’s stakeholder-driven processes and collaborating with stakeholders deeply concerned about the future of groundwater in the Hill Country.

How do you balance your role as a scientist with your role in public policy​?

Science is a critical part of policy development, but it’s often not at the table. That’s often due to scientists not being able to explain the science without the specialized jargon (elected officials ain’t got time for that). It’s also due to scientists crossing the line between science and advocacy because advocacy creates questions about the motivations of the science. My approach has been to communicate the essence of the science accurately, clearly and to not cross the science-advocacy line. Elected officials are lobbied all the time, so when you advocate as a scientist, you’re no longer a scientist—you’re just another advocate/lobbyist.

Another part is understanding the process and where science fits into policy discussions. Elected officials are generally balancing lots of information and consequences, of which science is only a part. I feel like I’ve done my job if, once given the opportunity, I’ve shared the science and been understood.

Finally, it’s realizing that science is often the underdog during policy-making, especially if the science is inconvenient to someone’s policy goals, doubly especially is that someone has money. Forces against science often use science against itself (such as through honest expressions of uncertainty) or simply confuse the science through obfuscation or out-right falsehoods, especially if the falsehoods are simple and “sound right.” Fighting these forces is like going into a knife fight with a pocket protector. If you are a scientist with principles, you simply won’t win.

While this might all sound depressing, understanding the process, where science fits in and how science is most effectively shared is critical. As scientists, we can’t control the process or those seeking to remove science from the discussion, but we can conduct ourselves in a way that increases the chances of science being part of the policy equation.

One thing that Texas has done right is using science teams to recommend science-based environmental flows for the state’s rivers and for Comal and San Marcos springs. The science recommendations are then overlain by policy recommendations from stakeholders before a final policy overlay by the regulating body. You may not agree with the final flow recommendations, but the science was given a clear and documented voice.

 

The San Marcos Springs are the second largest natural cluster of springs in Texas, located at Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas. Photo credit: Jennifer Idol

Which job or event over your career has provided you with the most beneficial experience for your new position as Executive Director of the Meadows Center?

During the leadership transition at the Meadows Center, a business consultant asked me what my superpower was. After pondering the question for a bit, I replied “Infinite patience with bureaucratic processes.” Somewhat surprisingly, having worked in a state bureaucracy and with the legislature has been invaluable in navigating the university. In state government, when faced with a policy my team or I didn’t like, I learned to seek to understand why the policy existed and responded accordingly. If the policy came from federal or state law, that was almost always the end of the discussion. If it was internal, maybe there was wiggle room. But never ever shoot the messenger.

But more inspirationally, it’s the friends and contacts I’ve made over the years as well as the leadership experience of leading groups at the Texas Water Development Board.

While the Meadows Center has been involved with issues across the state, it has maintained a focus on the Texas Hill Country and its water resources.  Do you see the geographic focus of the Meadows Center changing in anyway?

The Meadows Center is fortunate to have the Hill Country as our back yard, both literally and figuratively. Many of us have a personal relationship with the Hill Country, either living there or adoring it like many Texans do. The Hill Country is also at a crossroads of urban growth and environmental impact, creating a fascinating laboratory to explore solutions for sustainable development relevant to the rest of the state, the country and the world. So the Hill Country will remain a focus, even as we cast our eyes wider.

We’ve been working in the Guadalupe from its headwaters to its tidewaters and have been getting more involved with water quality and the coast. My groundwater expertise has opened up work in West Texas with frac sand mines and Comanche Springs. We already have a statewide program in Texas Stream Team, but I’d like to see us do more statewide assessments and to look for opportunities to tell the Texas story to a broader national and international audience. As a state, we do a lot of innovative things in Texas on water resources and policy that would be helpful to people beyond our borders.

Are there any new programs that you will be rolling out at the Meadows Center, and if so, can you give us a preview?

I really want the Meadows Center to be a leader on climate change and water. When I look at the threats to the Texas way of life—including the economy, agriculture, recreation and the environment—climate change is by far the biggest. I’m hoping that the Meadows Center can advance science and policy to ensure that Texas is responding to changes we are already seeing.

Are there any other changes at the Meadows Center that you can share with us​?

We’ve now consolidated the Meadows Center team under one roof at Spring Lake Hall, although COVID-19 has kept us from congregating under that roof.

Aerial view of Spring Lake Hall on the Texas State University campus.
What is your vision for the Meadows Center​?

My vision is the same as Andy Sansom’s: clean abundant water for people and the environment.

I think we also agree that all Texans need to work together to make this happen and that this can happen without affecting our economy—and may even enhance it. Although the vision is the same, how we achieve that vision needs to change in response to a changing world. Since Texas State University is an emerging research institute, we need to support the university in its goals by elevating our research—an easy sell since it only gives our work a greater impact and expands our horizons.

Do unusual socks, windmills and cats have anything in common or are they all simply a manifestation of insanity?

Insanity is in the eye of the beholder!

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