Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Drought and Surplus: Adventures in Water-Use with Morgan Hopkins

Few people were more excited than me when Morgan Hopkins was hired as Florida Yards and Neighborhoods agent at Miami-Dade County Extension. This program includes the irrigation outfit wherein I learned everything I know about irrigation tech and media work. Ms. Hopkins was eminently qualified and the right person at the right time for that program. Life being what it is, however, she is now following other opportunities west. As a water-use expert working in one of the two high-profile, IFAS-affiliated irrigation rebate programs in Florida, Ms. Hopkins agreed to share exiting insights with IrriGator.
Water-use expert Morgan Hopkins
You joined the irrigation program at Miami-Dade Extension fresh from graduate school. What drew you to Miami-Dade?
MH: I had a really great experience as an undergraduate working with Oklahoma’s Cooperative Extension Service and working with Oklahoma City developing their water conservation program. Having the opportunity to continue in a career where I’m able to educate residents on outdoor water conservation, this was something too good to pass up. I was able to get a taste of how important that was in Oklahoma. I thought it would be great to be able to continue this with the University of Florida. Then realizing how strong the extension network was made it even more attractive.

The only hesitation for me was the intimidation of learning a completely different environment as far as plant material goes, and then actually tackling water conservation in an area that typically gets a surplus of water. The size of Miami didn’t really intimidate me. In my mind I thought “well, great that’s just more people to reach and to educate,” instead of seeing it as more work. For me it was about how am I going to frame water conservation in an area that typically gets plenty of rainfall and has access to quite a bit of water?

What are the challenges of managing a large-scale water program in an urban center like Miami-Dade?
MH: One of the challenges: when we met with homeowners one of the common things we heard is “I’m on a well, I don’t really need to save water.”  That disconnect of the water situation in South Florida was really something that we had to educate more people on. That kind of surprised me. I figured with sea level rise and the Biscayne aquifer and salt-water intrusion that people might be more aware of these things. But again that was just another educational opportunity that we were able to take advantage of when talking with homeowners.

The fact that Miami-Dade is one of the southernmost regions in Florida and having that recognition of UF/IFAS is definitely a challenge for us. People often confuse us with FIU and they aren’t really sure why UF is down here. We don’t have the recognition that a lot of other counties have that are closer, or have a stronger connection, to Gainesville. People kind of favor the hometown universities here and kind of see us as an outsider. That’s a challenge we face in having credibility in some areas.

What are some opportunities that you feel you only scratched the surface on, that the program and your successor can build on?
MH: One of the things that I really wanted to tackle was getting out in the community more and doing more workshops - whether it was with Florida-Friendly Landscaping or irrigation. Irrigation is never sexy but I did want to try to make that effort whether it was with industry or with homeowners – try to make irrigation more digestible on a basic level, for people to understand the relationship of plants and water and the connection to our South Florida ecosystem. Having workshops based on those topics is something I would like to have done more.

Also, I really wanted to strengthen our reporting and our evaluations for the irrigation program and really do more technical work behind those – calculating water saving and sharpening the tools that we already have and the things that we’re already doing to take them to the next level. I know that as it continues on those things will come to life with my successor.

I understand you’re headed west. What are you most excited about or looking forward to in this next chapter of your career?
MH: It’s a bittersweet move because I’ve really enjoyed my time with UF/IFAS; it’s such a great organization and it has an immense amount of resources that other extension services are not fortunate to have. But I am excited. I started my water conservation career in a drought-stricken state. Oklahoma was in a five year drought when I started my masters. I am excited to get back to a region more prone to drought, where people are more in tune with water conservation. Scarcity really seems to make a stronger impact on the way people think about water and the way they use it and how it’s managed and how we educate citizens on water conservation, especially in the landscape. 

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