Meet a scientist: Kent Portney

When it comes to urban sustainability, the focus has mostly been on air, primarily as it relates to climate change, climate mitigation and climate adaptation. With much less attention on water, Dr. Kent Portney, a Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service professor, recognized this lack of attention and turned his focus to making sure water was included in the discussion.

Portney came to the Bush School as a professor in the Department of Public Service and Administration in 2014 and was appointed director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy in September 2016.

Before he came to Texas A&M, Portney was a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, working on sustainability issues and policies primarily in U.S. cities.

While there, he and his colleagues put together a proposal to the National Science Foundation to create a water diplomacy doctoral program, and that took him directly into water, water policy and transboundary water governance issues.

“Water diplomacy is about the processes that are used to come to agreements, to negotiate and to resolve disputes over water,” Portney said.

He said that using the term diplomacy sometimes leads people to believe it is cross-national issues, but instead it can include a wide range of issues, from two nations sharing a body of water or water source and there is a conflict over it, to two states in conflict over a shared water source. 

Like many other water professionals, Portney recognized that management issues involving surface water have been addressed over the years, but groundwater management issues have not. He then became the lead researcher of the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Water Governance Initiative. He said there has not been any attention to the legal side of managing and governing transboundary groundwater, and he embarked on this project to help play a role in developing that process.

The research issues of the initiative are concerned with water policy and management decisions made on both sides of the border, including decisions about surface water in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo and groundwater involving shared aquifer resources.

Portney currently manages the big issues that surround the project and coordinates the search for funds to sustain the project.

Because of treaties between the United States and Mexico, the International Boundary and Water Commission has legal responsibility for managing shared water resources, but they have focused mostly on surface water in the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, Portney said.

“Commissioners have the legal authority to deal with groundwater, and they have started to express interest in doing groundwater work, but there is not a lot there yet,” he said.

One of the classes Portney teaches is about water policy. He said half of the class time deals with water issues in the United States and the other half in comparative contexts, including transboundary issues between Egypt and Sudan, United States and Mexico, and other nations.

He said while studying U.S. issues, the class focuses on national water policies and examines how the United States ended up with these policies, what is trying to be accomplished and what gets left out.

“We take a pretty deep look at Texas and how Texas as a state manages water issues and what Texas’ policies are,” Portney said.

He said the class talks a great deal about what he calls governance of water — looking at the different state and local institutions that are involved in water governance. There is a lot known about some of the institutions, but not others.

“In this class, we try to take a holistic look at all the institutions and organizations that play a major role in water,” Portney said. “What they are doing, are they coordinated, if they aren’t, do they sometimes work at cross purposes, all those kinds of things.”

Portney said the state’s different organizations involved in groundwater play a serious role in water governance, and the class has outlined about 56 different organizations in the San Antonio region alone.

The Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy is one of the few institutes in the state that is taking on these big water governance and policy issues and trying to do it in a way that provides real guidance to policymakers, he said.

For more information, see Portney’s web page.

Guest Author

Claire Corley

By Claire Corley

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