When playing in creeks becomes a career

Tiffany Malzahn

Tiffany Malzahn joked her mom used to say if there was a mud puddle within a mile, she’d find it.

Getting dirty was just part of the adventures she sought in her childhood. Malzahn, 47, the Brazos River Authority environmental and compliance manager, said there was many times as a youth she was hosed off by a parent while standing in the driveway after an adventurous day of playing in the nearby creeks and forest.

“At the time, Cypress was somewhat rural. So, there were lots of snakes and bugs and alligators and critters, in the area, and growing up I never had healthy respect for those things,” she said. “Now, you look back on it knowing what I know now, saying, oh my gosh, we played in some of those. That creek has been on the impaired body water list for 20 something years.”

Malzahn didn’t know it at the time, but her love for adventures in creeks and wooded areas playing with aquatic species and dodging snakes would lead her to her current role of overseeing the environmental services department for the Brazos River Authority. And while as a member of management she no longer has the time to traverse the tributaries of the Brazos River basin documenting different types of mussels and testing water quality, she put in many years doing just that.

Malzahn entered Baylor University knowing she enjoyed biology and was leaning toward a career in pre-med. A few courses later, she realized that was not the career path for her. Under the guidance of a professor, she started taking environmental courses and discovered she was much happier there. She obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Ecology and then went on to receive a Master of Science in Biology from Baylor.

She was finishing her master’s when a professor mentioned the BRA was looking for an intern to help with data entry. So, in 1996 she began an internship and following graduation in 1997 she was hired as an aquatic scientist doing field sampling through the basin.

“The BRA was interesting,” she said about why she chose to work there. “I got to go out in the field and play with fish and bugs and ride around in a boat all day. And then, every time I thought about going somewhere else, they moved me to a new position or gave me a new challenge that sparked my interest. They just seemed to know.”

During her career with the BRA, Malzahn worked in the field, the lab, and served as a volunteer monitoring coordinator, quality assurance officer, then the Clean Rivers program manager, and finally the Upper Basin Environmental Planner before her promotion to her current role in 2007.

In her current position, she serves as the Environmental and Compliance Manager directing regulatory compliance, environmental programs, and laboratory staffs. She also assists in the development and coordination of regional water supply projects.

She oversees a staff of 16. For the last 23 years she is has watched the environmental department morph and adapt over the years from a limited role to be the all-encompassing area it is now within the BRA. That constant challenge and opportunity for growth plays a large part in why she loves the organization.

“Overall, I like our mission. I think it is not something that is lauded or recognized but I think it’s something that’s very noble,” Malzahn said. “Too often people look at water issues from a very narrow perspective and it’s either water supply and we have to have water for people and that’s all that’s important. Or the environment is the only thing that’s important. Being able to meet that challenge of trying to figure out how the BRA can continue to supply water - which is our primary mission - but to also do so in a way that’s not damaging to the environment is very challenging and it keeps you on your toes and makes it all very interesting. There’s no reason you can’t do both. Yes, it’s harder and requires more research and trial and error. But there’s no reason you can’t do both. I think it’s just the challenge of the job that I love.”

Malzahn serves on the Senate Bill 3 Brazos Basin Expert Science Team, the Bureau of Land Management’s Regional Environmental Impact Statement and Resource Management Plan stakeholder group and represents the BRA on numerous state environmental and regulatory advisory committees. She also collaborated with Texas Parks and Wildlife staff on a reservoir fishery project that won the American Fisheries Society’s 2014 Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project award. She is also the author of six scholarly articles published in state and national publications.

In 2016, she opted to further her education and skillset.

Tiffany Malzahn

She returned to school for a second masters while continuing in her role at the BRA.

This time she received a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. Malzahn said she realized in a large and growing agency, that an intense science-based education didn’t set her up well for the realities of managing a major department.

“I think I got a lot of benefit because I did it later in my career,” she said. “It definitely gave me a bigger picture of where BRA fits in to the grand scheme of things and a better understanding how federal, state, local agencies and nonprofits can weave together to most effectively serve the public.”

And while she doesn’t get out in the field anymore, she definitely misses it.

“I miss it a lot. But honestly now with all the projects going on and the expanded roles I honestly just don’t have time to do it,” she said. “I would love it. And I think the guys would love it. It’s always a good bonding experience. And it lets the young’uns see the boss isn’t just a pencil pusher. The thought of three days out in the field, even though it would make me immensely happy, the thought of how far behind I’d be behind in everything else. But they don’t need me. We’ve got a smart crew. I think we’ve got the most impressive crew we’ve ever had. They are hungry to learn stuff and they jump into it if you say, ‘Go figure this out.’ Even though I miss it, they don’t need me.”

BRA General Manager/CEO David Collinsworth said that under Malzahn’s direction, the organization will continue to address and resolve environmental challenges.

“Our organization is most fortunate to have a recognized leader in understanding environmental and water quality issues,” Collinsworth said. “Tiffany Malzahn, is recognized by her peers around the state of Texas as that leader.”

When she’s not working, Malzahn and her husband, Don, have two beagles – one female and one male. And, pre-COVID-19, regularly traveled to visit rodeos. It is, after all, how they met. Both were visiting the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in 2010 when they first bumped into each other.