WE SAT DOWN WITH AUWRC’S LAURA BELL COOLEY, ALABAMA WATERSHED STEWARDS PROGRAM COORDINATOR.
Tell us about your background and current position.
I joined the AUWRC team in 2018 and immediately began working on the Moores Creek Stream Restoration and Pepperell Branch Watershed Planning projects. In my current role with the AUWRC, I both apply for and implement grants that are used to engage and educate stakeholders statewide about natural resource protection and preservation. Almost 5 years later, I’m still learning new skills and working on new projects.
My work with the AUWRC is largely project management, but includes applying for and developing multi-year grant projects to engage local communities in improving watershed planning, implementing best management practices, and developing educational programs. My day-to-day at the AUWRC can range from office work on grants and project management, to leading extension outreach events like rain garden installations and green infrastructure tours, to organizing professional development events on stormwater best management practices.
We at the AUWRC are highly collaborative and almost all our projects involve working with various partners and stakeholders across the state. Projects I’ve worked on have included: Alabama Watershed Stewards, Pepperell Branch Watershed Management Planning, Moores Creek Stream Restoration, Behavioral Science and the Selling of Conservation Education Program, and the Alabama Private Well Program.
I have a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Cultural Anthropology with a minor in Urban and Environmental Planning and a M.S. in Human-Environment Relations from Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.
In graduate school, I had a focus in landscape architecture and sustainable design. After graduating, I moved from upstate NY to Auburn with my husband who also works at AU.
Although I have a non-traditional path into the world of water, my background allows me to approach problems from a people and systems perspective. I’m interested in the relationship between human behavior and sustainability and understanding the social-political-informational systems that influence whether people engage in conservation behaviors. Often education is not enough to change behavior, we must consider personal motivations, context, and barriers when we ask people to make environmentally conscious choices.
Laura Bell Cooley of the Auburn University Water Resources Center.
Laura led a rain garden installation in Opelika, Alabama’s Wood Duck Preserve. Photo Credit: Joshua Jackson, ACES
One of the biggest impacts this job has had on me is that it’s given me a better understanding of how just a few dedicated community members can, over time with persistence, start to make a big impact on the future of their communities. I’ve learned how to take an idea into reality through community partnerships, planning, and the hard work of showing consistently up over time. I’m always thinking concretely about how change happens, which people need to be involved, how relationships need to be built, and what kinds of practical systems or barriers they face to implementing their vision. It’s become ever clearer to me that working with regional partners and organizations at a grassroots level can have some of the biggest impacts.
What’s on the horizon this year?
In 2023, I’m mostly focused on Alabama Watershed Stewards, an outreach program at the AUWRC that brings citizens, agencies, and city governments together in learning about water quality issues and identifying ways to begin addressing them in their areas. Some examples of events I’m helping facilitate this year include a Nature-Based Stormwater Solutions Workshop with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Watershed Planning Workshops (part of the Alabama Watershed Stewards program), Designing Bioretention and a Stream Restoration Design workshop (Part of a NFWF Five Star Restoration Project with the City of Auburn). We are also looking forward to updating the Moores Mill Watershed Plan in collaboration with AU Civil Engineering.
Laura with AUWRC team members, Dr. Eve Brantley and Sergio RuizCordova after teaching a workshop near Noccalula Falls near Gadsden, AL. Photo Credit: Laura Bell Cooley
In your view, what are future priorities for Alabama water resources outreach, education, and/or research?
I think the AUWRC has a great opportunity to become a resource for municipalities that are trying to make smarter decisions about how to plan for their water resources. Although Alabama doesn’t have a plan for managing water resources at a state level, many cities are realizing the importance of doing so at a regional scale, but they are often lacking resources for how to proceed. Cities are facing unprecedented challenges from flooding, resource demands due to population increases, patchy infrastructure, and understaffing. From addressing flooding, rethinking infrastructure, providing insight on development regulations, the AUWRC is uniquely positioned to pull together disparate experts and stakeholders to discuss complex problems and help generate localized solutions.
In your career, what is the best advice you’ve been given?
That the non-linear career is the future. People who can operate at the intersection of various fields can often create new fields and subsequently, can be the most resilient and adaptable in the face of uncertainty. This helps me remember that trying something new, exciting, and uncomfortable is probably a sign that you’re doing something right.
Laura explores Grand Teton National Park. Photo Credit: Laura Bell Cooley
What is a book that you think everyone should read and why?
I have two answers, both of which are vaguely about how to think beyond yourself into your larger place in the world.
“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry is a wonderful short essay I’ve often gifted that beautifully explores how people relate to a place or landscapes over centuries, adapting them and changing them to our needs without always truly understanding our own intentions, or the consequences of our actions. It’s a lovely essay that helps you learn to see your own ‘place’ with new respect, and with curious eyes.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, (translated by Gregory Hays) is one of the books I have gifted most. Aurelius was a Roman emperor and stoic philosopher from 161-189 AD, Meditations is a notebook he kept for himself throughout his life with his musings about how to conduct himself and navigate life’s daily challenges. Centuries later, it turns out our life challenges are surprisingly similar. It’s still one of the most calming and insightful books on how to think beyond your immediate self and consider your larger role in the world.
Laura considers her larger role in the world in one her favorite places: the garden. Photo Credit: Laura Bell Cooley