The population of Texas is projected to double in the next 30 to 40 years, and at least a quarter of the new arrivals are expected to move to coastal cities. With these kinds of development pressures, coastal communities need to make plans now that will also incorporate the need to protect natural resources and quality of life, says Dr. John Jacob, Professor and Coastal Community Development Specialist with the Texas Sea Grant College Program.
“It’s about coastal planning, about smart growth,” Jacob said. “The dilemma is balancing the place we are now with where we’re going in the future. If we grow the right way on the coast, we could be bigger and have a better quality of life to boot. Without smart growth, we could lose our environment.”
His impressive body of work integrating conservation and sustainable community development earned him the prestigious 2012 Terry Hershey Award for Excellence from the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences (RPTS) at Texas A&M University.
Named in honor of Houston’s grande dame of conservation, the Hershey Award recognizes excellence in park, recreation or natural resources contributions to Texas, the region and/or the nation, as well as support for education and innovations as a leader in natural resource protection.
Jacob was chosen for his considerable work and achievements that “have helped to make people aware of bayou conservation, community development patterns and the value of open spaces,” said Dr. Scott Shafer, RPTS Associate Department Head.
Jacob directs the Texas Coastal Watershed Program (TCWP), leading efforts to educate communities and individuals about how their use of the land can influence water quality from their front door all the way to the coast. “Everyone lives in a watershed, which is simply where water drains from wherever you are into a river, lake, bayou or bay. Whatever you do where you live impacts those waterways.”
Since 2000, Jacob and his group, which is headquartered in Houston, have been working on coastal community development using everything from cutting-edge technology to being “in the weeds” doing wetlands restoration work.
Two of their high-tech tools are the weTable and the Community Health And Resource Management (CHARM) software model. Jacob and his team recently received a $100,000 federal grant to use these tools to help Rockport area leaders and citizens make far-reaching decisions about the area’s growth over the next quarter century.
The weTable combines a laptop computer, a projector, a light pen and a Nintendo Wii remote to transform an ordinary tabletop into an interactive computer interface. Participants use the light pen like a computer mouse on the projected image of the computer’s desktop, which is shown on the tabletop. The Wii remote detects the pen’s position on the table and sends the location to the laptop via Bluetooth connection so people can turn complex data into a color palette that allows them to paint different versions of future development, and the resulting picture tells them the consequences of their decisions in terms of things like potential runoff pollution, flooding and flood damage, water consumption and even walkability. Participants exchange control of the weTable by simply handing off the light pen, allowing them to interact with data, maps and each other instead of trying to crowd around a computer monitor or passively sit through someone else’s presentation. It’s the kind of work that only highly-trained specialist would have been able to complete in the past
The CHARM model uses a variety of data — like demographics, average water consumption per dwelling type, and topographic and bathymetric measurements — from a number of sources, like NOAA, to calculate the end result of development based on parameters fed to it by workshop participants. These parameters can include locations for growth, anticipated numbers of new residents and predicted hurricane storm surges.
The TCWP also teaches sustainable landscaping techniques through workshops and brochures — “Landscapes that are both beautiful and non-polluting are our goal” — and the group is a partner in the Sheldon Lake State Park wetlands restoration, planting grasses to restore a critical freshwater wetland system. Under TCWP’s guidance, the Clear Creek Independent School District is using newer technology to replicate nature with a constructed wetland, to demonstrate that nature can exist in the cities. “Smart growth includes walkable cities that will lead to resilient coastal cities,” Jacob said.
TXSG is achieving these goals by also exploring new kinds of collaborations to leverage the resources of multiple entities. The creation of the state’s first Coastal Community Development Specialist position was a partnership between TXSG and the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) with funding from a NOAA grant. Heather Wade was hired to fill the position in mid-2011 and is headquartered at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, the home of the NERR.
“Texas’ population, particularly its coastal population, is growing and putting additional pressure on natural resources, but we’re not getting any additional funding under the current economic situation to hire more county agents or specialists,” said Logan Respess, TXSG’s Associate Director and head of its Extension Program. “This partnership between Texas A&M and The University of Texas is a creative way to overcome this problem.”
The Mission-Aransas NERR is one of the largest in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System of federally designated areas, which are designed to promote the sustainable use of the nation’s coasts and oceans through scientific research, education and coastal stewardship. Wade’s territory includes all or parts of Aransas, Refugio, Nueces, San Patricio and Calhoun counties, where she is working with small coastal communities with limited planning resources to support their efforts in sustainable development.
Media contact: Jim Hiney, Communications Coordinator, Texas Sea Grant, at (979) 862-3773