Water heroes: Dr. Andrew Sansom wants you to put a kid on the river

Dr. Andrew Sansom is commonly acknowledged as one of Texas’ leading conservationists. All it takes is a glance at his resume to understand why – his career has been award-studded, and includes working as executive director for both the Texas Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Today, Sansom works from his office overlooking the San Marcos Springs, where he is the executive director of Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Sansom spends a lot of his time these days sharing his experience and knowledge through freshwater environmental education programs, by training volunteer water monitors, and as a research professor of geography.

We joined Sansom in San Marcos and asked him to share some of that wisdom with us.

Texas Living Waters (TLW): Think back to the beginning of your career. Why did you decide to get involved in conservation?

Dr. Andrew Sansom (AS): My roots in conservation go back to when I was a child. I lived on a creek in Brazoria County, Texas. My dad and I made a boat with our own hands, and after school I would get in that boat and explore that creek – which in those days was basically in the wilderness. It was a very small town and I spent many many happy hours on that creek. I’m sure that it probably goes back that far.

TLW: Texas is known for being difficult terrain when it comes to environmental advocacy. What keeps you going?

AS: Texas really is a tough place to be an environmentalist. The political climate is, particularly today, about as bad as it could be. It interestingly was better in the 1980s than it is today.

But on the other hand, Texas is a place where no matter what your political background or philosophy is, you identify with [the state]. I mean, there’s probably no other state of the union where people feel this strong a sense of place as here in Texas. And that is part of what keeps me going, because I love Texas.

And I have great hopes for the future of our children here, but [there are] incredible challenges that the next generation is gonna face. Particularly in water. In the fragmentation of land. In the absence of children from the outdoors – there’s a declining number of kids that are using the outdoors. And all of these things make me not want to stop.

TLW: What’s the most important thing for people to do to protect our state’s waters?

AS: There are really only a handful of really critical environmental issues that face us, and probably I would rank pretty close to the top of the list the fact that our children are now largely urban in Texas. The demographics of the state have changed. And so there’s fewer and fewer kids that are being exposed to the outdoors.

Historically all political support for the environment has come from outdoor users, whether they’re hunters, or anglers, or kayakers, or rock climbers, or bird watchers. Historically, all of the funding for conservation in Texas has come from people who use the out-of-doors. And so we risk losing the constituency for conservation that we have been able to depend on over the years, but more importantly, we know from every scientific study that has been done, that if our kids are not exposed to the outdoors, they’re missing something which is very good for them.

Oftentimes when I speak or appear at various places and quote all of the dire statistics about the environmental problems we face, someone will stand up and say, “Well what can I do? You know, what can a person like me who’s a school teacher, a lawyer, an accountant, what can I do to help address this problem?” Every one of us during the course of a year can take a child outdoors, can put a child in the water, teach him how to fish, take him canoeing, but expose him to the out-of-doors so they understand that it is a source of fun and enjoyment, of spiritual renewal, but it’s also something that they must take responsibility for.

TLW: What do you consider to be the biggest issue facing our waters today?

AS: The biggest issue facing fresh water in Texas is the fact that we’re gonna have twice as many people in the next 50 years, and we have already given permission for more water to be withdrawn from most of our rivers than is actually in them. That means that if all the water rights that the state has allocated since we were a colony of Spain were actually utilized, then many of our most iconic rivers would be dry today. And yet we’ve gotta find water for twice as many people in the next half century.

TLW: How have you seen our state’s environment change over the years? What about the political and social dynamics around the environment?

AS: In the absence of drought, or flood, the political environment for dealing with water becomes more difficult. Our legislature has proven over the years that I’ve been working with them that it doesn’t really do the hard stuff if there’s not a crisis. So the fact that we’ve had fairly decent rainfall for the last couple years, has taken water off the front burner.

But there’s some daunting issues that from a policy standpoint the legislature must face, in order to address this issue. Probably the most significant one is that we treat groundwater completely different from than we treat surface water in law. So from a legal standpoint, there’s no connection between springs like this one and water that flows downstream. So that the state has told landowners in places like Victoria or Seguin that the water belongs to them, but yet the courts have ruled that if you pump water out of the Hill Country upstream, that that water belongs to them. And so there’s a crisis looming as the pressure for water resources becomes greater and greater, because the state has told different people that the same water belongs to them.

TLW: What’s your favorite Texas waterway, and why?

AS: I really can’t name a favorite waterway. I have floated the canyons of the Rio Grande with Ann Richards. I’ve run the Devils River. I grew up on the Brazos. I work every day at the second-largest spring in the western United States. And all of these places are precious to me.


About the series: My Living Waters

This blog series is our tribute to the rich tapestry of Texas’ water heroes, and the water features they cherish. Do you know somebody who speaks up for water and wildlife in their everyday life? Let us know.


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