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McClintock leaving watershed management after 25 years

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

When Nancy McClintock began working as a field biologist for the city of Austin in 1986, environmentalism was not quite the science it would become over the course of her 25-year tenure. Instead, she and her fellow municipal biologists, conservationists, and engineers had to develop their own criteria for protecting the city’s waterways.


“When I first came here, the city was cleaning Barton Springs with chlorine,” McClintock told In Fact Daily. “We knew a little bit about Town Lake and a little bit about Barton Springs (in 1986), but we didn’t really know very much at all about all the other watersheds, the over 50 creeks we have in our area. So we developed an evaluation system in which we were looking at not only water chemistry but the biology in the creeks and the lakes and the aquifer, the sediment quality in the creeks, and the physical integrity of the creeks.


“We became a leader in the nation with that kind of work, comprehensively looking at the health of our streams, not just collecting a snapshot in time by looking at a water sample


“These past 25 years is kind of when watershed protection has grown into a mature science and a mature profession. I really have gotten to be in the catbird seat for all of that, and it has really been an amazing ride.”


That ride will come to an end this month, however, as McClintock says goodbye to a career that has lasted nearly a quarter of a century and seen her go from being a lowly field biologist mapping woodlands, wetlands, and prairies to the assistant director of the Watershed Protection Department.


Her job for the last six years has been to oversee the city’s Environmental Resource Management Programs, which include 24-hour pollution emergency response; storm sewer discharge permitting; environmental impact assessment; stormwater treatment through public retrofits; stormwater monitoring; creek, lake, and aquifer studies; salamander conservation; creek erosion mitigation; and public education.


Although McClintock believes every one of her department’s programs has been vital to protecting the city’s waterways – from flood mitigation to the legal defense of water quality ordinances – she singled out the open space acquisition program as one of the initiatives she is most proud of.


That program, which began in 1998 with a bond election to fund the preservation of land providing recharge to the Edwards Aquifer, involves the Watershed Protection Department working with staff from the Austin Water Utility Wildland Conservation Division to prioritize potential properties for protection and then working to either acquire those properties or get the owners to agree to  conservation easements for them.


In 12 years the program has resulted in the protection of more than 30,000 acres of land vital to maintaining Austin’s water quality.


McClintock said that in a career fraught with contention and dispute – among environmentalists, government officials, developers, landowners, etc. – the open-space program has been “really positive and joyful.”


“So much of the work that we do feels like hand-to-hand combat – we’re fighting a tide of change and water quality threats in a growing city like Austin,” she said. “So to get to preserve all the acres of land out there to help protect the aquifer and Barton Springs has really been a highlight of my career.


“I love that part of the job. You’re just simply protecting the land so that it will continue to provide clean water to the streams and the aquifer and preventing any of the pollutants that would have been generated by development. It’s the ultimate best-management practice.”


Still, there comes a time when people start looking beyond even the “perfect job” to other things, and McClintock says she’s leaving because “I’ve got some other parts of me that I would like to let free.”


She said that she hopes to spend her time “ambling and rambling” and playing more music with her band, the Double Eagle String Band.


“This is a wonderful job but it’s extremely consuming,” she said. “I have always wanted to leave my wonderful job when I was still 100 percent, not because I got too tired, or disillusioned or otherwise unable to carry on. … There’s so much still to be done, and everyday now I get sad thinking I might be experiencing the last chance I’ll have to affect some issue or another. 


“But I have been thinking for a couple of years about my eventual departure … My staff is ready, the department has all the tools in place, I was thinking more and more about a different kind of life. I think it’s the right time.”


The City Council will honor McClintock, as well as Environmental Officer Pat Murphy, who is also retiring this month, at Thursday’s Council meeting.

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