Environmentally sound

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Justin Grimm considers himself a jack of all trades both at work and in life.

The Brazos River Authority’s environmental programs coordinator was hired 15 years ago as part of a two-year project undergoing bacterial monitoring near Robertson County. The Baylor University graduate has since traveled the length of the Brazos River basin, either identifying mussels, fish, or bugs, or searching for snakes, among many other efforts as part of the organization’s mission to manage and protect the water resources of the basin.

The BRA is lucky to have such a dedicated employee working to further the protection of natural resources in the basin, said Tiffany Malzahn, environmental and compliance manager.

“Justin consistently produces high-quality, accurate work, is dedicated to continually learning about the sensitive species of the Brazos River basin and is quickly becoming recognized as an authority on freshwater mussels in the Brazos River basin,” she said.

Originally from northwest Houston, Grimm started at Baylor with the intention of being pre-med. But the more he studied, the less he liked it. Then he started working in the university’s water quality lab and taking an aquatic entomology class by Dr. Ryan King. Combining that with the hands-on experience in the field learning from people who were really smart, he’d found a new calling.

By 2007, he’d graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Dr. King offered him a position at the school to conduct further research and do field work until an opening came up at the BRA.

Grimm was an aquatic scientist for the BRA from 2008 to June 2021, when he became the environmental programs coordinator. One of the things he’s loved has been the differing projects that arise.

“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none type of guy,” he said. “I like to dabble in all sorts of things. It’s kind of neat to do a lot of variety of stuff. I've been able to do everything from microscopy to building an electrofishing boat in the course of my job.”

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One of the projects Grimm manages is the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, a 2021 agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that commits the BRA to implement a voluntary conservation strategy for the Balcones spike and Texas Fawnsfoot mussels. It’s the first system-wide conservation partnership designed to protect the diversity of aquatic species in the Brazos River basin. In 2016, the USFWS began evaluating six freshwater mussels known to occur in the Guadalupe, Colorado, and Brazos rivers to determine if the species’ status warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Two of the six freshwater mussels live in the Brazos River basin, the Truncilla macrodon, known as the Texas fawnsfoot, and the Fusconaia iheringi, known as the Balcones spike.

Grimm travels with outside consultants to perform mussel surveys.

“Basically, you put on a scuba mask and get in knee-deep water, and you float around feeling for rocks with guts or pointy rocks that are a little slimier than the others” Grimm said of locating the mussels. “A lot of their habitat is areas where water is not too swift so they can stay in place in high flows, but swift enough to carry oxygenated water and nutrients.”

Grimm said there have been occasions they’ve found, identified, measured, and returned 800 mussels in one location, and others when none could be found. The goal is to research where the mussels should be, why or why not they are there, how we can go about changing land use or water quality that would be conducive to bringing back these mussels.

The Texas Fawnsfoot has been found in multiple locations within the Brazos River basin, including the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, the Brazos River between Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Granbury, the Brazos River below Waco and the Navasota River and the Little River. Within the Brazos River basin, the Balcones Spike is currently known to reside in the Little River, San Gabriel River, and Brushy Creek.

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Brazos Water Snake

Grimm also manages a project surrounding a type of snake that only resides in one small area of the state - the upper portion of the Brazos River.

The Brazos Water Snake, Nerodia harteri, is a nonvenomous friendly resident that’s had little research on its species. The snake is recognized as threatened by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is protected by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, and is just one of four species of interest considered threatened in the Brazos River basin. The Brazos River Authority’s Environmental Services Department regularly monitors the status of different fish and wildlife species as a way of tracking the health of the Brazos River basin ecosystem. In September 2022, the BRA Board of Directors authorized a three-year phased contract with BioWest Inc. for research on the snake.

Currently, that work involves population studies. Grimm said he travels with the team up and down the river, setting traps and looking under rocks all to locate the snakes.

“We want to provide enough scientific data to say that there either is an issue or there isn’t an issue with population viability so that we don’t have it federally listed and impact water availability for us if we don’t have to,” Grimm said.

The public can help by reporting sightings of the Brazos Water Snake here. Studies could show the Brazos Water Snake is happy, healthy, and numerous. But if not, the BRA is helping the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with a potential conservation plan.

Grimm said in a large part, he’s continued working at the BRA because of the people.

“All the people I’ve worked with have been great,” he said, adding he liked the city of Waco, where he resides with his 15-month-old daughter Penelope and wife of seven years, Tina.

A lot of his work revolves around reading and researching, keeping an eye out for environmental topics changing on the federal or state level and keeping an eye on published reports.

“Our department makes sure we can deliver the quality and quantity of water that Texas is going to need in the future and we’re going to need a lot of water,” Grimm said.

Outside of work Grimm can be found being a “jack of all trades.” He enjoys tinkering with the 3D printer, disc golf, woodwork and electronics, cooking, and anything DIY.