The Water’s Keeper
Texas’ top conservationist, Laura Huffman, is a woman with a plan, and she’s determined to preserve the resources of the state she loves / By Robin Rather
“I like swimming in it. I like working on the policy around it. And I like to see it protected,” she says.
Watershed protection has been a constant, deep undercurrent driving her career. And now that Texas is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years, Huffman’s role as a strategist, an innovator and highly disciplined public servant has never been more important. The drought has spawned out-of-control wildfires, left farmers with no irrigation for their crops, killed millions of trees and even changed the migratory patterns of birds. Huffman is the latest in a long line of Texas women who have stayed calm and determined in the midst of natural disaster. Her plan is as straightforward as a line painted down I-35:
“Drive water use down,” she says. “Our state is counting on each and every one of us to use less water. We’re going to have to stop asking, ‘How much can I have?’ and start asking, ‘How much do I need?’”
These are strong words coming from a representative of The Nature Conservancy, an organization that prides itself on science -based solutions and a pragmatic, non-confrontational operating philosophy. Huffman’s latest op-ed (statesman.com/opinion/insight), which outlines her plan, was well received and re-posted widely on the Internet throughout the state. She has a way of saying things that are true without making people go crazy. Huffman’s no-nonsense style, say her friends and co-workers, defines her success.
“Her views are always so well-researched and so logical,” Cookie Ruiz admiringly says. “She’s done her homework, looked at all the options; she’s run all the traps. She can aim the right level of detail at the right crowd. So many people are strong at the 100,000-foot level but then get three detailed questions and are utterly stumped. Not her. I’m always stunned at her innate intelligence and ability to persuade using common sense and logic. I’m very interested in people who can change the world, and Laura is very interesting to me right now.”
Huffman agrees that a big part of her effectiveness as an executive both in city management and in her role as state director for the Conservancy is to find what she calls “the alignment between the big picture and the details.”
“One without the other will not work,” she says. “How did I come up with my style of focusing on both the big picture and the details as part of my job? I’d love to say this is part of an epiphany I had one evening about public service, but the truth is I find it’s a practical approach. If all you ever focus on is the big picture, you can’t guarantee that vision is being operationalized. That means your results will be interesting ideas that went nowhere. On the other hand, if you stay in the weeds and only focus on the details, you can never know if it added up to anything. And chances are it won’t. We need big ideas. They are important. They animate and energize communities.”
Big ideas seem to come easily to Huffman. She’s been involved in some of the most innovative water conservation strategies in the country, ones that have become models for many regions in the U.S. and internationally. In terms of big ideas, Huffman is inspired by another big thinker and one of her heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, who said in 1907,
“The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.”
The roots of Huffman’s deep understanding of conservation come from parents who she says were “granolas before it was hip. We were harvesting rain water in metal trashcans and mulching in the backyard when it was probably a code violation.”
Huffman’s mother baked bread, canned vegetables and made jam from vegetables and fruit grown at a family farm outside of Luling.
“My first job was selling tomatoes in the neighborhood,” Huffman remembers.
She credits her mother with instilling a deep sense of respect for how limited our natural resources are and the need to not waste anything—especially water. Huffman’s father was a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at Austin, and he gave her a love of how government service can make people’s lives better, and a method for looking for the best of the big ideas. Together, her parents instilled in her a love of nature, organizing trip after trip on classic vacations to national parks throughout the United States. Huffman recalls being mesmerized by the redwood trees in the Muir Woods outside San Francisco. That family vacation may have sealed her destiny as much as anything else.
Huffman is the youngest of five siblings and she proudly recalls being expected to complete a 10-mile hike without sitting on anyone else’s neck, starting at a very early age. Being part of a big family left an indelible mark on her career; Huffman loves the thrill of competing with both men and women, thrives in all kinds of chaos and her unfailing sense of teamwork is legendary.
“Laura really knows who she is,” says Kristen Vassallo, who worked closely with Huffman for the City of Austin and now at The Nature Conservancy. “She’s a great teammate and it is all about the team. She knows what her strengths are and recognizes the strength of others. She is great at assembling the best minds in a room and getting us to work together to find solutions to problems. She gives us a lot of rope. She does not micro-manage, but she is available when we need her. She gives very clear guidance and is also willing to say, ‘I haven’t figured this out yet. Please help me get there.’ She truly values the ways different people approach issues in different ways.”
Vassallo also admires Huffman’s toughness, her inner composure and a confidence that is not arrogant, simply resolute.
“She is very sure about the direction we are going in and she is very certain about the importance and the meaning of public service,” Vassallo says.
Huffman’s storybook childhood wasn’t all a bed of roses.
“I didn’t love high school and I graduated early,” is about all she’ll say about her years at Austin’s McCallum High School. She was a strong competitive swimmer who trained with the legendary UT Aquatic Club, which gave her a different set of friends and a chance to push herself physically. During her junior year, she began dating a boy she had known since kindergarten, and they have been together ever since. Kent’s father was also a professor at UT and their parents were friends. In fact, their mothers were in the same bridge club while they were pregnant with the children who would later marry. Huffman was the proverbial girl next door.
Huffman went on to Texas A&M University and majored in political science. Politics was new to her, as it was not a topic for dinnertime conversation at home, and she wanted a major she didn’t know much about. She continued her education, entering graduate school at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, where she fell in love again, this time with public service and learning how government is put together and how it really works. After obtaining her degree, her first job was with the City of Austin in the Office of the City Auditor. The job helped solidify her sense that the mechanics of issues are important to understand, and to honor the idea of being a real expert.
“Budgeting and auditing give a real bird’s-eye view,” she says. “It makes you ask the questions, ‘Are you doing the right things?’ and ‘Are you doing things right?’”
She rotated through the City Manager’s Office for a few months before landing a dream job with the City of San Marcos as an assistant city manager.
“San Marcos reminded me of the Austin I grew up in. It’s a small town dominated by a beloved water feature. It was also a city that embraced innovation,” Huffman explains.
The mayor of San Marcos at the time was Cathy Morris, who became very concerned about growth in San Antonio and how it might affect water availability in San Marcos during a drought. Huffman’s first major project was helping the city move to surface water, away from relying strictly on the Edwards Aquifer, and building a water-treatment plant that was sized for the whole region, not just the town. Huffman worked on an openspace conservation plan with The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land as partners. They jointly developed a vision for water conservation that science, at the time, indicated was necessary, although few in Texas had ever tried it. Today, those policies are considered best practices and regions throughout the world are replicating the early Central Texas innovations.
Eight productive years later, Huffman yearned to return to Austin, where her husband worked and commuted to each day. She jokes that she left for San Marcos as a newlywed in a Mustang convertible and returned in a minivan with three kids and one on the way. She returned to work for the City of Austin as an assistant city manager overseeing public safety, including the fire and police departments, using her communication and logical debate skills to win over an initially skeptical staff. Later, she was moved to oversee the critical departments of economic development and environmental protection, and planning/zoning, where her reputation as a skilled negotiator and visionary was taken to even higher levels of accomplishment. The highlight of those days was working on open-space issues, taking what she and others had implemented in San Marcos to a greater scale. Austin voters, by large margins, approved bond packages that included millions of dollars for protecting open space for water-quality protection.
“Open space was such a positive expression of how Austin wanted to look and feel. It was so supported. Open-space protection is so meaningful and is a long -lasting legacy for the city that will last for generations,” Huffman says.
Again, The Nature Conservancy was a key partner on this issue, giving assistance by identifying the land and aiding in the completion of the transactions. Asked how she could possibly accomplish all this while raising four children, Huffman laughs and says, “A sense of humor is essential. Kent and I have a shared set of values about what is and isn’t important. Raising children is one giant highlight of my life so far. I love the noise level and chaos of a big family like the one I grew up in. And it helps that the kids’ grandparents live nearby. Everybody pitches in.”
“Kent is not the kind of father who has to be given a list when she’s out of the house,” Huffman’s sister Judith adds. “He really is an equal partner in the family and being responsible for the children.”
A sense of humor also helped when Huffman lost her very public bid to become Austin’s city manager. Huffman, for the first time, had to deal with a potentially devastating professional setback. Not getting the job meant she would virtually have to leave Austin city government.
“No one wakes up thinking they’re not going to get what they want,” she says. “At first, it felt like a loss. But it didn’t stay that way. I worked out a lot and I did a ton of running and yoga. My friends and family wouldn’t let me make it be that big a deal. I have learned how to stay positive and not to torment myself with all the what ifs.”
In order to get re-energized, Huffman made a list of what she wanted in her next challenge. She wanted to stay in Austin, so applying for city management jobs in other cities was out.
“I wanted my world to include Austin but to be bigger than Austin,” she says. “I was interested in getting out and about around the state of Texas, which is as dynamic as it gets. Exploring the state personally would be like a playground. I wanted to work with very smart people—that is critical. And I wanted to remain in public service.”
Not long after restructuring her goals, Huffman became the first female state director for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. Her office overlooking Congress Avenue in downtown Austin is one of the “greenest” in town, and from that vantage point, she is asked what she misses about city management.
“I don’t miss anything! Everything I loved about it I still get to do versions of. And I definitely don’t miss worrying so much about the inside politics,” Huffman says.
If anyone can help Texas move forward in the 21st century with enough water, energy and clean air, it may very well be Laura Huffman. This driven, good-natured, logical, sisterly mother of four has the right mix of brains and humor to motivate the Lone Star State to conserve as much as possible and enjoy doing it. If the 15 op-eds she’s already published, the hundreds of volunteers and funders she’s inspired, and acres of land already conserved are any indication, Texas is well on its way.