Feb. 8, 2010

10 minutes with William Conrad

William Conrad is division manager of Wildland Conservation for the Austin Water Utility. He graciously answers a few questions from the BC Water News team.

William Conrad

Name: William Conrad

Title: Division Manager, Wildland Conservation, Austin Water Utility

Background: Willy Conrad has been responsible for managing Austin Water Utility’s wildlands since 1999. A 1978 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University with a BS in Forestry, he is a Certified Professional in Range Management. Willy started his career as an Environmental Program Manager for the Austin Water Utility. Before that, he served as a Rangeland Management Specialist and District Conservationist in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for 17 years.

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What positive changes are you seeing in the water industry as a whole?
William Conrad: I think that recent commitments to conservation are an amazing epiphany for the water industry. We see it in our approach to consumption, facility design and maintenance, reuse and source water management. We often hear environmental critics describe conservation and the water industry as conflicting interests. To see today's commitment within the water industry to advance conservation is thrilling. To work for a utility as committed to the cause of conservation as we are here in Austin is very gratifying.

What is the biggest obstacle to being an effective water steward?
Conrad: Probably me. I am a sound ecologist and a redheaded German. Neither stereotype is credited with exceptional people skills. All kidding aside, I don't feel like I have many obstacles, just a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge is probably the dispersed nature of our land holdings and the fact that it is all located in an urban setting. We are different from many land management agencies in that we recently went out and purchased our land holdings instead of reserving them in the past. Developing and implementing a landscape or ecosystem approach to management becomes exponentially more challenging.

From an operational standpoint, having numerous smaller parcels disbursed across the landscape is much more difficult to manage than one large block of land. The urban nature of our surroundings further complicates our management. Traditional management tools, such as prescribed burning, become much more complex in this setting. Even seemingly mundane activities like maintaining fences become more challenging.

What is a common misconception you deal with each day in your job?
Conrad: The concept of public land that many folks perceive creates many conflicts for us. The term "public land" often evokes a perception that the land is unused and available to everyone to use as they wish. This goes back to federal lands that were actually considered unappropriated lands before the 1920s and '30s. These lands were available for homesteading, mining and logging with few management controls.

In Austin, the land we manage is land that was acquired and is being held in public trust for a specific purpose. That purpose is defined by the bonds that voters approved for its purchase. We must ensure that bond covenants are respected while we also seek to maximize the ecosystem

services we provided our community from the land. It is also a working landscape. It is being used daily to provide safe, high-quality water to our aquifer and highland lakes.

You were a featured speaker last week at the NACWA Winter Conference, and spoke about Austin Utility's stewardship of a 36,000-acre source water watershed. Austin is one of the few utilities that manages undeveloped wildlands for the benefit of water supplies. How would you describe your role as a water steward?
Conrad: Austin is known for our community's commitment to our environment, especially conservation of our natural resources. This is demonstrated by the numerous community organizations dedicated to various aspects of this cause. Many of these groups and their members bring exceptional knowledge and passion to the table, with respect to the aspect of our natural heritage that they care about.

We are also a community that strongly supports participatory democracy. Our ratepayers use the democratic process to advocate for their interests throughout our community. This often creates a perception of competing interests with respect to conserving precious natural resources like our water. As the person charged with managing this land for our community, I have the responsibility of focusing on the voter-mandated purpose of the land (mostly bought with voter-approved bonds), while also listening to our community's input.

I am expected to use voter mandates, community involvement, my knowledge of ecology and my experience with day-to-day land management operations to plan and implement a management system that serves our community and conserves our resources in an effective manner. Many times, this requires me to go back to our neighbors and explain why our operations do not look like their vision of appropriate management.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
Conrad: My ability to be creative as I work to conserve natural resources while assuring that critical public service needs are met.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Conrad: My friends will probably tell you I have three vices: fishing, fishing and fishing. The fact is that my faith and family come before fishing, while vegetable gardening trails closely behind the rest.

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