TWRI assistant director spotlight: Lucas Gregory

The Universities Council on Water Resources (UCOWR) interviewed Lucas Gregory, Ph.D., a TWRI assistant director and the lead UCOWR delegate at Texas A&M University, for the November 2020 member spotlight. 

Texas is a state of diverse landscapes and climates where the majority of land is privately owned and the population is increasingly urbanized. This presents challenges when discussing water and land resource management. The Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) team is built to address water resources research needs across Texas and beyond and to provide education and outreach, thus serving the Land Grant mission of Texas A&M University.

Lucas Gregory, Ph.D., a TWRI assistant director and the lead UCOWR delegate at Texas A&M University, started there as a project manager in 2006 on a small staff of 10. Since then, the TWRI has grown considerably and now consists of 25 researchers and extension specialists, as well as a deep support staff. Gregory and other TWRI extension educators, several of whom grew up on Texas farms and ranches, recognize the need for pragmatic approaches that landowners can implement without undue burden.

Gregory is deeply involved in efforts to understand, restore and protect Texas’ water resources through TWRI’s “Water Quality Improvement Program.” This program combines water quality monitoring, watershed assessment and planning, and stakeholder engagement in developing effective plans to voluntarily restore water quality while improving the landscape as a whole. He established TWRI’s monitoring program in 2011 and continues to expand its work and capabilities to support watershed planning efforts. The information collected through TWRI’s monitoring work is all channeled into watershed-based planning activity and public engagement. TWRI’s staff analyzes water quality and other watershed data and distills it to information that is useful for watershed stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding water quality management practices on their land. Gregory has personally led five such efforts to protect and restore water quality, and now oversees a number of other projects on which TWRI staff are working.

Just one example of TWRI’s effective work on water quality with landowners is the Attoyac Bayou watershed in East Texas, where E. coli concentrations exceeded state water quality standards beginning in 2000. In partnership with the local river authority, a local university, and researchers at Texas A&M, TWRI led efforts to gather and analyze data to define needed E. coli load reductions, identify pollution sources and plan management strategies to achieve needed reductions. The cornerstone of this process was and remains the local stakeholders. TWRI and partners hosted a series of stakeholder meetings to provide general background on local E. coli concerns, provide context through discussion of the Clean Water Act and applicable standards, and highlight the need to address existing water quality concerns. They then led stakeholders through the process to develop a watershed protection plan. Along the way, local stakeholders formed the Attoyac Bayou Watershed Partnership and ultimately developed the Attoyac Bayou Watershed Protection Plan 2014. The critical role local landowners played is included in the opening pages of the plan document:

With the rural nature of the Attoyac Bayou watershed, continued involvement and input from watershed landowners was all the more important to ensure that the plan encompasses recommendations that not only address the issues facing the watershed, but are also palatable to the landowners themselves. The time and effort of these landowners is greatly appreciated and is reflected in the contents of this plan (Attoyac Bayou Watershed Protection Plan 2014).

One voluntary management recommendation resulting from the WPP process helps in reducing E. coli contamination from cattle in the watershed. “We encourage livestock owners to plan grazing strategy throughout the year to minimize time cattle graze closer to water ways relative to run-off events during the rainy season. In other states there is a push to fence off creeks and not use them whatsoever. That goes over like a lead balloon in Texas, so we promote making a creek a pasture, and using it sparingly, in rotation.” Additionally, landowners can place feeding and watering stations far enough from water ways to draw cattle away from creeks.

Input from local landowners during the WPP development process ensured that these and other management suggestions included were appropriate for local realities and perceived positively. “Landowners have a strong desire to be good stewards of the land and water resources they manage,” says Gregory, “but the costs to change their current operations can be prohibitive. Our job is to demonstrate the value in change to stakeholders and in doing so we have an infinitely better chance of having them implement new practices.” Since the 2014 WPP was produced, Attoyac Bayou watershed has seen E. coli levels drop, an encouraging sign of stakeholder commitment to plan recommendations.

To support watershed planning efforts, Gregory also leads the Texas Watershed Planning program at TWRI. Kevin Wagner, Ph.D., now director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center, started this program and taught Lucas the finer arts of watershed planning as a student in the first-ever Texas Watershed Planning short course. The student has now become the leader and teaches portions of the course, based on U.S. EPA’s “Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters,” to water resource professionals from Texas and other states. This program provides a variety of training opportunities such as stakeholder engagement, how to use social media for natural resource management, and a semi-annual watershed coordinator’s round table meeting. Many of these offerings are now online and open to anyone to attend.

Gregory and the TWRI team are always working to improve water quality, promote more sustainable use, and to pave the way for better water resources for tomorrow. “At the end of the day, building a relationship with the folks you are working with, whether it’s a local landowner or a partner at a state or federal agency, is the most important thing you can do to set yourself up for success. People are what we are really all about at TWRI,” Gregory said. “and I am proud to say that I’ve been a part of building such a great team at TWRI, that is passionate about water and people.”

Read the original article on the UCOWR website:

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