Sky Jones Lewey
Sky Jones-Lewey has lived her entire life on the banks of the Nueces River in southwest Texas and has served as a formal river advocate since 2000. Jones-Lewey joined the Nueces River Authority as its first Director of Resource Protection and Education and has since touched the lives of thousands by pioneering a number of innovative and award-winning programs including Up2U and the Riparian Landowners Network curriculum.
What is your role at Nueces River Authority?
I am the resource protection and education director at Nueces River Authority. We are a very small government organization with a large territory of 15,000 square miles. We also have a very small staff of only 6 full-time employees. We also don’t have any regulatory or taxing authority, but we have a broad mandate to protect water supplies.
As an educator, what is the value of shifting perspectives of the community through education?
All environmental education has value. In the Nueces basin, an informed community is more powerful than a regulated community. In many cases, it is the knowledge of how and why that motivates responsible behavior toward the environment. A lot of our education messaging for youth is really around not driving in rivers because of the aquatic life and ecosystem, and being more considerate of these systems when recreating. That works with young people, but when you come up against an adult who was never exposed to this education and litters our streams, the solution isn’t education but regulation.
How has the Nueces River Authority adapted its education programs during COVID?
At the moment, we are delivering our regular classroom education via Zoom and video presentations. I am missing the hands-on aspects and interaction that, really, has been the cornerstone of our education programming. Much of our riparian training was already virtual, so we were prepped in a way. Now, we are delivering more in this format.
COVID really brought the role of education to light. The pandemic hit this area hard, and also hit all the organized outdoor places. All of a sudden, people who had never recreated along the river before were coming in the thousands. There were so many new people camping and recreating along the river, and that brought lots and lots of trash, too. In Texas, most of the land along the river is private, so there’s no maintenance. In the areas where there are designated city parks, there are trash cans and porta-potties, but they’re hard to come by in the areas people are recreating. I think we have to raise the bar. What we’re dealing with here is not just people and individual behaviors, but a lack of regulation. I’m afraid that this is the beginning of a very difficult journey. I’ve called for a new Task Force to be created to address this new issue.
What are some of the successes you’ve had with creating Task Forces in the past?
We’ve had to address similar problems in the past around responsible recreation for off-road vehicles about 20 years ago. The problem was getting bigger and bigger, in part because of a lack of outdoor recreational opportunities! People are willing to drive miles and miles and break laws to be outside and feel like they’re in the wilderness. The headwaters of the Nueces have always been secluded and out of sight. Trespass is very difficult to enforce because of the inability to fence in a floodplain. This new form of recreation came along, so we formed a Task Force. It took 3 or 4 years to get legislative action to get some statewide legislation passed to prohibit the use of motorized vehicles in state streambanks. There really isn’t any other regulation around Texas streambeds. Now, the issue is enforcement. Driving in a streambed is illegal, trespass is illegal, but it’s going to take cooperative enforcement and education to get the job done.
One of your many accomplishments listed in your nomination packet was the Riparian Landowners Network. Can you tell me more about that initiative and what did it accomplish?
In Texas, the land adjacent to streams is almost entirely privately owned. Riparian areas account for only 1% of the landscape but have a disproportionately larger influence on water quality and quantity. In 2008 we began taking the riparian lessons learned on western rivers and delivering the National Riparian Service Team’s training to landowners in the Nueces Basin. We had 10 workshops a year for the next five years, hosted by landowners in barns, living rooms, and hunting lodges. As we gathered these decision-makers and provided them with information about how riparian areas work and how their management decisions can favor clean abundant water in creeks. We began to see change. Later others picked up these trainings began delivering them statewide.
I’ve had a long career defending the Nueces River. What are you most proud of and what has been key to your success?
I am most proud that the Nueces River is still here, free flowing and mostly pristine despite continued and growing threats from uninformed humans. We are making headway with issues like wastewater discharge, largescale groundwater marketing schemes, public recreational abuse, land fragmentation, mechanical manipulations of river beds, invasive species, etc. The people of the Nueces are dedicated to protection their rivers and they are to be credited with any success. Really, my role has been to simply provide them with guidance and support in this endeavor to protect and defend the Nueces River.
This interview was published on November 9, 2020. To learn more about Sky and her work at the Nueces River Authority, visit http://www.nueces-ra.org/.