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Holland retires after 8 years at the helm of Barton Springs Aquifer District

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

After more than eight years at the helm, Kirk Holland is retiring as General Manager of the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer Conservation District.  


Though he says he never would have imagined that his last job would be at a government agency, Holland explains that the job was a good fit – and not just because of his background as a hydro-geologist. He also brought organizational management skills to a district badly in need of them.


“It wasn’t just that things weren’t running smoothly,” says Holland. “The car was in the ditch.”


As a testament to that sentiment, one person that In Fact Daily spoke to pointed out that Holland is the first General Manager of the district to retire. There have been a lot of changes at top over the years.


“From an internal standpoint, I think the district has become a lot more professional,” said Holland. “We have people aligned with their strengths and working as a cohesive team, as opposed to working in disparate silos.”


He said that while the dysfunctional district of years past may have been well-known for fights and political posturing, recently they have become high-profile in a much more positive sense. Holland said that in the last decade, they had become known, and appreciated, as an information resource in the area, and had steered clear of land-use and regulation politics, despite having an elected board.


“From an external standpoint, groundwater has become much higher up on the radar for people. Part of that is just a manifestation or dimension of property rights,” said Holland. “Unlike surface water, which is public water owned by the state, groundwater is owned by the surface landowner. We’ve always treated it that way, but there are some stakeholders, some folks, that really didn’t appreciate what that meant.”


“I think one of the things that we’ve been able to inculcate and cultivate in the past few years is that in order to protect private property rights, with respect to groundwater, you can’t look at it on an individual private property owner basis, you have to protect all the private property owners at once, who are using the groundwater as a resource,” said Holland. “It’s a shared resource.”


His colleagues appreciate the balance.


“We are grateful for his contributions. He has led us in addressing the demands of the aquifer as far as usage is concerned, and balancing that against the need to maintain Barton Springs,” said Board Member Craig Smith.


But Holland knows that isn’t a sentiment shared by everyone in the area.


“There are some people that look at GCDs (groundwater conservation districts) as just another layer of government bureaucracy that has to be overcome, or they have a special ax to grind, even with our district,” said Holland. He added said that the current cultural emphasis of private property rights over the rights of the public as a whole with respect to natural resources presents some hurdles for the district. It’s something the district has had to “spend money, time and effort to overcome or accommodate.”


“We would rather be doing some other things with our limited resources,” said Holland, who explained money would be better spent on outreach and advancing aquifer science.


Holland cites a persistent lack of funds as one of the ongoing challenges he faced, despite being one of the wealthier groundwater conservation districts in the state. He also remains concerned about restrictions imposed by the state, saying the district continues to be concerned about development in the aquifer’s contributing zone and the resultant deterioration of water quality.


“It certainly is not as high-quality as it was naturally, before development. And as additional development occurs out in the Hill Country, we believe there need to be more attention paid to surface water and groundwater.”


However, says Holland, the district has been successful in outreach and education recently. So successful, in fact, that a recent survey of Austin citizens – all of whom get their water from the Highland Lakes – showed that most mistakenly believe their water comes from the Edwards Aquifer.


But Holland says that the district faces challenges in the future.


“It goes to the fact that groundwater is a very finite resource,” said Holland. “New people are coming in, or people that have been here but not heretofore put a well on their property but now want to are really being restricted and limited about how much water they can withdraw in a drought. So you can’t really use that as a permanent supply to supply your family, business, industry, school or whatever.”


It’s a real challenge, especially as drought conditions become the norm in a changing climate.


“Eventually, the drought of record is going to become a middle-of-the-road type drought,” said Holland. “The fact that we’ve got limited water supplies from our current aquifer systems means that we need to find some additional water resources for those folks.”


Holland cites desalinization and aquifer storage and recovery as possible solutions, and says that groundwater conservation districts need to be ready to move forward to facilitate those solutions.


“One thing that’s clear is that water, groundwater especially, but all water, is undervalued as a resource. All Texans are going to be paying a lot more for groundwater in the future,” said Holland. Though the district does not currently distinguish between water uses, Holland says that this will eventually have to change, as scarcity increases.


“It’s going to be uncomfortable,” said Holland, who explained that board members are not used to making value judgments on water uses, or determining who can or cannot use groundwater. It’s not something that is currently allowed under state law, but Holland says that will have to change and he firmly believes that decentralized boards, such as BSEACD, are the right bodies to be making those tough decisions.


Board President Mary Stone told In Fact Daily that Holland had made huge contributions to the district, saying, “He will be deeply missed, not just by us as a district, but the whole community.”


“We know his influence will be felt for generations to come,” said Stone, who pointed out that Holland’s close work with new General Manager John Dupnik is a legacy in itself.


“Kirk has always led by example and as a real mentor to me; he leaves big shoes to fill,” said Dupnik. “During his tenure, the district implemented policies that will sustain the Edwards Aquifer for all users well into the future while enabling development of new future water supplies for the region. Kirk’s vision, leadership, and collaborative mentality have been integral to the success of the district as a model for community-based management and responsible groundwater stewardship.”


Holland will be staying on as Chief Operating Officer through the end of August, then continue working as a consultant for the district for a while longer. He’s hoping to travel and golf more in his retirement (or semi-retirement, as the case may be.)

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