Texas has been in the grip of a severe statewide drought since 2010. Recent heavy rains in parts of the state have helped take some cities out of drought status, but much of state remains dry and water levels remain low, prompting many in the state to strengthen their push for water conservation and efficiency. Working tirelessly in this endeavor is Carole Baker.
Known at the Texas Capitol and around the state as the “Queen of Water Conservation,” Carole Baker was the 2011 recipient of the Gregg A. Cooke Memorial Award for Exceptional Environmental Excellence. For more than fifteen years she has worked to persuade Texas leaders to make water conservation a priority.Carole is the recently retired Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the Harris Galveston Subsidence District; Chair of the National Alliance for Water Efficiency; Director of the Board of the Texas Water Conservation Association; Director of the Board of the Texas Water Foundation; and a founding member and director of the Texas WaterWise Council.
I first heard Carole speak about water conservation and education at the UN International Water Forum. We spoke recently about the drought in Texas and how she came to play such a central role in water politics. Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen to the 33-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above right) or download the podcast.
When I heard you speak at the UN International Water Forum, you spoke about a ‘Know Your Watershed Program.' Can you talk about that?
Yes. We were tasked by the Senate; they formed a Water Conservation Implementation Task Force about six years ago and the Senate charged us with several things. But one of the things that you heard me speak about was the fact that they asked us if we would look at whether the state of Texas needed a water conservation campaign. And so we went ahead and raised money on a private basis to do the research - that happened over a few months. And the results were very, very interesting.
No other country wastes water like we do. We seem to feel very entitled to all the water and energy we want to use, because “by golly, it’s ours and we can do that.” But I think the Africa experience, when you see people, their whole day is spent just going to collect some water to come bring back to their mud hut that they live in...when people talk about water is life; we do that pretty casually over here, but over there that is absolutely true.
What we found out very quickly was, it wasn’t a water conservation campaign that we needed, it was actually a water campaign that we needed, just to educate people about the water issues. Because one of the main things, and what I had spoken about there, was the fact that people did not know the source of their water. Less than 20 percent of the people, interviewed statewide, and this was focus groups and telephone surveying and meetings, less than 20 percent knew where their water came from.
And the research showed us that the reason that was so important is because with all the other questions they got asked, we realized that the people who knew the source of their water, that small percentage, were the ones who were actually conserving and who were concerned about their water supply. The other 80 percent, they just did not—they just weren’t worried about it and even when asked about what their top environmental concerns were, water quantity never made it onto the list at all. So we came back to the legislature and said, “Yes, we do need a campaign, but it needs to be a water-education campaign.” And we had developed the brand of ‘Water IQs: Know Your Water.' And the reason everybody seemed to like that was because people asked the question, “What do I need to know?” and that’s what we wanted them to ask. We wanted them to understand some of the water issues and, of course, that was all before we had been in this extreme drought that we're in right now.
Can you explain the difference between conservation and efficiency, where conservation is something like turning off the tap when you brush your teeth? What exactly is water efficiency?
That’s probably one of the toughest questions you could ask me. This comes up a lot and I think there’s a whole lot of different ways to define it, because you can efficiently use water and you might not actually be conserving it, but you might efficiently be using it.
So I'm not sure. That’s an age-old question that I'm not sure I really have an answer to. We did, in the national organization, want to go with the words Alliance for Water Efficiency, I think, because we wanted to look at a lot of different areas where we felt like if water could be more efficient we would be more conserving. And frankly, sometimes ‘conservation'…the word is not as sexy as some of the other things: energy efficiency is a much more interesting subject because you can save a lot of dollars there.
With the fact that we've always kept our water rates so low, it has not really been a real big priority. And we've done research in the past that showed us that not only do people not really understand where their water is coming from, but they don’t even understand why we're asking them to conserve, because they just feel like there’s an endless supply.
We're sort of looking at that in Texas right now. We've got 98 percent of our state right now that’s in exceptional and extreme drought and that’s a first. And I feel like people say to me, “Well, Carole, we're not going to run out of water. The state will find water for us.” So I think that’s just the feeling of people having taken it for granted like they do.
How do you bring that kind of awareness into your family life? Because I know with my roommate or my family members, my friends even, they'll turn on water, leave it running and then they'll look over at me and I'm staring at them and they quietly turn it back off.
Yeah, we do come up with this evil-eye look, those kinds of things. But I will tell you that, I guess, for me, when I first got started in it and I thought it was really important and I thought, well, it sounds good, we'll work on this. I made my first visit over to Africa where my daughter and her husband had been living in Botswana for quite a few years. I just hadn’t worked up the courage to go over to see them as they were living with no electricity or running water at the time.
But then I did go within the first couple of years to visit with them. And my grandson came out when we got the farm and said, “Okay, Gran, here’s your bucket of water.” That was my gallon and they explained to me how to use that gallon of water to bathe and flush toilets and wash your clothes in and it’s not something I would want to do all the time, but I can promise you, on all my subsequent trips over there that--even though now they do have running water, but it’s not water you can drink--but watching people there was, I guess the thing just fired up my passion over this issue and made me realize how much we do waste here.
No other country wastes water like we do. We seem to feel very entitled to all the water and energy we want to use, because “by golly, it’s ours and we can do that.” But I think the Africa experience, when you see people, their whole day is spent just going to collect some water to come bring back to their mud hut that they live in. I think that, as I said at the UN, when people talk about water is life; we do that pretty casually over here, but over there that is absolutely true.
So I think I just—I don’t know, I started looking at those issues and would like for us to be, at least a lot more conscious about how we are using it so we protect if for our grandchildren who will come here and go to college.