q&a+water: Rex Isom

q&a+water: Rex Isom

Executive Director, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

 

In this issue’s Q&A, Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, interviews Rex Isom, Executive Director of the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board. 

Isom is a 1979 graduate of Texas Tech University. Following graduation, Isom was in commercial and real estate lending. In 1987, he accepted the position as South Plains Field Representative with the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board. On January 15, 2004, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board chose Isom to lead the agency as its Executive Director.   

As Executive Director, Isom is responsible for coordinating the programs and activities of Texas’ 216 soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) along with conducting the state’s agricultural and silvicultural nonpoint source pollution abatement program. Additionally, Isom has oversight for the TSSWCB’s Flood Control grant program, which consists of more than 2,000 dams statewide. In addition to serving with various statewide agricultural organizations, Isom served as Chairman of the National Watershed Coalition.

What is the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) and what is its mission?

TSSWCB is an agency that administers Texas’ soil and water conservation law and implements voluntary natural resource conservation and nonpoint source water pollution abatement programs with an agricultural and silvicultural focus. The agency was created in 1939 by the Texas Legislature to organize the State into local soil and water conservation districts and to serve as a centralized agency for communicating with the Texas Legislature as well as other state and federal entities. Local districts are actively involved throughout the State in soil and water conservation activities such as operation and maintenance of flood control structures, sponsoring pesticide workshops, producer field days, land and range judging contests, scholarships and securing money for the construction of outdoor classrooms.

The agency’s mission is to work in conjunction with those local districts to encourage the wise and productive use of natural resources, with the goal of ensuring the availability of those resources for future generations in a manner that promotes a clean, healthy environment with strong economic growth.

How many soil and water conservation districts are there in Texas? How are the districts created and governed?

There are currently 216 local soil and water conservation districts that cover Texas’ 254 counties. Texas is divided into five soil and water conservation district areas and each elects a member to the agency’s governing board of directors. Two additional members of the agency’s TSSWCB are appointed by the Governor, for a total of seven members. Each of the local districts is an independent political subdivision of state government and is governed by five directors elected by rural landowners, all involved in agriculture. Districts play a critical role in delivering agency financial and technical program resources, in a voluntary manner, to private landowners where natural resource conservation needs have been identified or are critical to meeting the goals of the agency’s overall mission. In addition to assisting the agency with State programs, local districts assist the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service with setting district-wide priorities for the various programs funded through the Federal Farm Bill.

What are the TSSWCB’s water programs and what are these programs accomplishing?

One of the core functions of the agency is providing grants to local districts so that they can adequately assist and implement various soil and water programs through direct technical assistance with landowners. A portion of these grants require a dollar-for-dollar match from non-state sources to maintain a local investment in voluntary conservation and ensure that districts have the ability to consistently have a presence across the state. Districts do not have taxing authority, so they rely exclusively on appropriations from the Legislature through the agency and any funding they can acquire locally.

All water programs administered by the agency are currently authorized by the Legislature’s decision to entrust the TSSWCB with the abatement, management and prevention of nonpoint source pollution, or rough-off, from agricultural or forestry-related activities on private lands.

The agency partners with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) within the context of Texas’ overall Nonpoint Source Management Program, which is a dynamic statewide plan approved by TSSWCB, the TCEQ and the Governor. The plan is updated every five years to remain relevant to ever-changing water quality challenges.

A major component of this statewide plan is the agency’s Water Quality Management Plan Program, which involves the voluntary participation of private landowners in conjunction with their local district, toward a water quality-oriented conservation plan on their operating unit. Each individual plan is accepted by the landowner, approved by the local district as meeting the operating unit requirements of the agency’s rules, verified to meet the USDA-NRCS requirements for a resource management system and certified by the TSSWCB as being protective of state water quality standards. This program ensures that there is a voluntary mechanism available to address challenges that are not regulated by the TCEQ and EPA.

Within the Water Quality Management Plan Program is a special emphasis area for poultry operations. All poultry operations are required to obtain a water quality management plan in order to operate in the state, so the agency spends a significant amount of time addressing animal mortality and litter management issues with that industry.

To compliment the on-farm aspect of the statewide plan, the agency also awards grants to various entities for watershed-scale projects toward the implementation of watershed protection plans and total maximum daily loads, as well as other assessment, implementation, demonstration and research projects. The funding for these grants is provided by the EPA through the Clean Water Act, Section 319(h) Grant Program and appropriations from the Texas Legislature. Additionally, the agency maintains a priority area around the coastal zone of the State to protect those resources and investigates water quality complaints on facilities that are not permitted by the TCEQ.

Carrizo cane (Arundo donax) is considered one of the greatest threats to the health of riparian ecosystems in the southwestern United States. Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service
The agency also administers a Carrizo Cane Eradication Program along the Rio Grande River to enhance border security activities and participates in numerous government functions such as the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee, Water Conservation Advisory Council, Prescribed Burn Board, Invasive Species Coordinating Committee and Task Force on Endangered Species and Economic Development.

When grants and outside funding sources are available, the agency can administer special initiatives to address challenges such as enhancing lesser prairie chicken and Monarch Butterfly habitat, and feral hog eradication.

One of the most important responsibilities the agency addresses is flood control across the state. The Legislature appropriates funding to the agency for grants to local districts and other sponsors for operation and maintenance, repair and rehabilitation of the flood control dams constructed on private lands above infrastructure such as roads, bridges and a variety of other public and private property. This responsibility represents the largest portion of the agency’s overall budget and has grown in importance since first being funded in 2010.

How many TSSWCB water control structures are there in Texas, are the structures more prevalent in any of the state’s major river basins and are all of these structures dams?

There are 2,041 water control structures (all are dams) built by four federal United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) programs that qualify for assistance in the TSSWCB Flood Control Program. These dams are all contained in the national dam inventory database and are regulated by TCEQ because of their size and the potential impact on public safety if they were to fail. Over 900 of these dams were built in the upper portion of the Trinity River basin around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and about 500 dams were built in the middle portion of the Colorado River basin in Central Texas. The remainder are scattered around the rest of the state.

 

There has been a significant amount of attention over the last few years on the safety of dams in Texas. What are TSSWCB’s dam safety programs?

The TSSWCB Flood Control Program assists local sponsors (SWCDs, counties, cities, WCIDs and other special purpose districts) with maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and upgrade of dams owned by local sponsors. Most of these dams were built to standards appropriate for low hazard dams which would damage agriculture land and minor county roads, with low probability of loss of life, if the dams were to fail. However, over 500 of these dams are now classified as high hazard from low hazard classification due to urban development directly downstream of the dams. Unfortunately, these newly classified high hazard dams do not meet high hazard safety criteria as established by TCEQ. Failure of a high hazard dam has a high probability of causing loss of life and extensive property damage.

The TSSWCB program assists sponsors with repairing and maintaining all of these dams but also assists sponsors in upgrading the high hazard dams to meet current dam safety criteria. This assistance greatly reduces the likelihood of a dam failure and enhances public safety.

TSSWCB engineers also meet every six weeks with USDA-NRCS and TCEQ Dam Safety Program engineers to discuss current issues and progress in addressing dam safety needs in Texas. These meetings support coordination of the dam safety programs of all three agencies and result in safer dams, reductions in flood damage and enhanced public safety.

Does TSSWCB have an assessment of the damages that have been prevented by your flood control structures in general or for specific flood events like the floods resulting from Hurricane Harvey?

The 2,041 flood control dams provide average annual benefits of over $150 million to the people of Texas. USDA-NRCS Temple State Office occasionally analyzes storm events that occur to determine how much benefit was realized from one storm or a particular period of flooding. Below is a photo of a dam in Cooke County in May of 2015, showing the capture of floodwater exiting the auxiliary spillway and a photo of a pipe spillway slowly releasing stored floodwater.

What accomplishment(s) by TSSWCB during your tenure as Executive Director are you most proud of?

During my tenure TSSWCB has continued to build upon the solid pursuit of a statewide, voluntary, natural resource conservation program, as envisioned by our forefathers, staff and TSSWCB members for over 80 years. As the population rapidly increases in Texas, pressures continue to mount upon our natural resources, specifically, the wise and efficient use of all waters in the great state of Texas. As pressure has increased on our natural resources, the TSSWCB and staff have stepped up to the plate in addressing issues as they come to our attention by prescribing and applying best management practices through the State’s local soil and water conservation districts, which in turn, work through Texas’ many agricultural producers. I could list many programmatic accomplishments on behalf of all involved but that list is too long to mention here. Let me end by saying it has been a real blessing to work with TSSWCB members, staff, soil and water conservation districts and agricultural producers all across Texas in voluntarily conserving and protecting our natural resources. It is important to note that the benefits derived from our programs are not only for Texas’ producers but also, and maybe more importantly, for all Texans now and into the future.

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