TCN Interview
Alyssa Burgin: Director, Texas Drought Project

As parts of Texas endured severe drought conditions this summer, the Austin-based Texas Harambe Foundation launched a new venture, the Texas Drought Project. The organization’s stated mission includes “recognition of indicators of climate change, recommendations for modifications to policies governing water, methods of conservation, and solutions to the overall problem.”

Alyssa Burgin

Alyssa Burgin

The Texas Drought Project’s director is Alyssa Burgin of San Antonio, a media consultant and veteran of various progressive causes and campaigns. Burgin, who has served as outreach and media director of Texans for Peace since 2002, recently worked for congressional action against global warming as a representative of the Harambe-funded Texas Climate Emergency Campaign, a state affiliate of the national 1Sky organization.

Burgin described herself this way in a blog profile: “I grew up in a home where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was revered, women’s rights were treasured, and every lecture ended with the same reminder – ‘always question authority.’ If my Dad could see me now, I believe he’d think I was doing okay in that category.”

She recently answered questions posed by Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson about the Texas Drought Project.

Q: First, please tell me some basics about your organization – how, when and why it got started.

A: Well, I saw a need for this while I was doing some support work on a grassroots level regarding climate change. And I was approached by many people who said that there seemed to be a lack of information on drought. So earlier this summer, I concluded that this would be a good project to undertake and officially we kicked off Aug. 1.

The funding and origins come from a couple of different sources. One of the main backers is the Texas Harambe Foundation out of Austin. Harambe means “let us work together” in Swahili and they are an international funding organization. I also have a great deal of support, in kind, from Texans for Peace as well as the Center for Progressive Studies in Corpus Christi.

Q: What issues are you going to be engaging under this umbrella of drought, and what are the key messages you’re bringing to the public and to policy makers?

A: Well, in terms of issues, foremost is the dire situation that we’re in, and trying to inform people that we need to take action now to preserve water for the next generations in Texas. That can be done by a variety of ways, all of which involve correcting mistakes of past. We have to find better ways to regulate groundwater pumping. We have to keep the water that we have clean and potable. We have to utilize different agricultural processes so that we can preserve water in agricultural sectors.

But we have to do all this keeping in mind that climate change is going to shake up the entire ball, and it’s going to make the situation very cloudy for us in terms of trying to find the right solutions because we don’t have a lot of time before climate change takes effect in Texas and we’re going to be met with a much more serious situation.

Q: What kind of activities is your group engaging in now? Will it be engaging in advocacy work, educational activities, lobbying? Any or all of those? Other things?

A: Well we’re connected with 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations so we will not be engaging in issue advocacy or lobbying but we do hope to inspire Texans to do some of that on their own, as we say, to take back their own future into their own hands. And we’ll be doing a lot of that by the educational process of bringing forums and workshops to their cities around the state, by having various venues that fit right in with their everyday lives, going to civic organizations, speaking at churches, bringing in environmental films that specifically focus on water so they can see what the water issue looks like, not just in Texas but around the world.

Q: Do you think that Texans are not as well informed as they could be and should be? I mean, we’ve got a bad drought right now in parts of the state. Texas has a history of droughts off and on over the years, over the decades. Do you think that despite that, Texans don’t know as much as they should about water issues?

Texas Drought ProjectA: Well, we’ve heard a lot of conflicting information coming out of various Texans during this drought. I hear people talking about this drought and comparing to it previous droughts and I’ve heard many, as they would call themselves, old-timers, talk about the 1950s and drought and say that, “well, this drought’s not as bad as that drought.”

Well, I realize that that drought was technically and climatologically a very severe drought, but what we have to remember is the relative size of populations. For example, San Antonio in the 1950′s was 400,000 people and now the standard metropolitan statistical area is 2 million. And that puts an entirely different spin on water scarcity, because if you have the same lack of water, or close to it, then obviously when you have many, many more people, then those people impact it in completely different ways.

So I believe that in that sense, the relative scale of drought is unknown to many people in Texas and they don’t understand all of the processes that got them to this point. But then, they haven’t been asked to understand it. Certainly, their state government and all of its regulatory organizations and agencies have not engaged Texans in conserving and understanding water.

Q: The issues you’re addressing have been raised for years by environmentalists and scientists and others. What do you hope to bring to the table, to contribute, to this public dialogue that has been occurring off and on, but isn’t now being done by like-minded groups? And are you working in partnerships with such organizations?

A: I am working with some organizations in partnership. An example would be the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. But, what I find to be the case, I remember talking to a representative of, let us just say an environmental organization located in Austin, and she said, “well, you know, we’re already doing that,” and I said, “yes, but do you have an organizational chapter in…,” and then I named off many cities, among them Mission, Edinburg, Alpine, even larger places like El Paso, Kingsville, Corpus Christi. And no, she didn’t. And that is truly the problem.

There are many wonderful environmental organizations and they’re doing great work, and we would certainly not challenge that, and we don’t call it into question, but the fact of the matter is, that the average American who goes about his or her life doesn’t have time to avail himself of all the resources that are offered by those organizations that are, in most cases, far away and not very accessible. Our whole theme is accessibility of information. We’re going to bring the information to where Texans are, where they do business, where they reside, where they farm, where they ranch, where they go to school, and we’re going to make that information available to them in the most basic of ways, so that they can integrate it easily into their lives.

Q: You mentioned climate change. You call it “the elephant in the room” with regard to water issues. And you’ve said that you think the current drought is being affected by climate change and obviously you’re speaking about the projections of more aggravation of drought in the future by climate change. How do you intend to address the climate issue? It’s a contentious subject, and I think you’ve said that you’ve found that to be the case in some of your presentations.

A: It is a contentious subject, I certainly acknowledge that. I think that you can pull people in, based on information they already agree with. You can talk about issues relating to groundwater pumping. You can talk about issues related to agricultural practices and how those could be changed, and once they hear that, then you can introduce climate change in a way which is, perhaps, non-threatening. Maybe you don’t use the phrase “climate change.” Maybe you talk about how there are changes in the natural growing cycle, which is is something that anyone who works in agriculture can understand, and pretty much anyone who plants a garden in Texas can understand.

And the main thing to remember is, we’re not preaching to the choir here, we’re preaching to everybody, and eventually we’d like for them to be part of the choir, but we think that a much more nuanced effort is necessary to make people understand what exactly is going on with the climate in Texas and around the world.

Q: Have you been involved in environmental issues before?

A: All my life.

Q: So this is not a new involvement for you, generally speaking.

A: I have always, to be honest with you, seen environmental matters as being an aspect of peace and justice. All too often, there is a lack of environmental justice in many communities, and certainly we can see that many countries have been torn apart by conflict over environmental issues.

Q: Finally, could you just tell me a few other relevant details about yourself that might help folks understand why you’re involved in this issue. Your education, your work, personal interests, personal background, whatever.

A: Well, I started out in college assuming that I was going to be a physician and most of my early college education is in science. Primarily microbiology, epidemiology, public health, virology, immunology – that sort of thing.

But I also took a great deal of physics. And I studied under Dr. John Wheeler at the University of Texas, who is considered one of the fathers of the H-bomb but who also made me understand the connection between science and philosophy. And it’s that sense, I think, of a certain amount of justice in the world that I seek to achieve by being involved in environmental matters, and I would say that I learned that under Dr. Wheeler.

[Disclosure: Robert Harriss, president and CEO of the Houston Advanced Research Center, which publishes Texas Climate News, is a member of the Texas Drought Project’s Scientific and Environmental Advisory Board.]

Image credits: Photo courtesy Alyssa Burgin, Logo – Texas Drought Project