As Executive Director of the Cumberland River Compact, Mekayle Houghton is working hard to enhance the health and enjoyment of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. A Nashville transplant by way of Sarasota, Florida, Mekayle met her husband, a native Manhattanite and Vanderbilt graduate, at The University of Chicago during a small group project in a class they shared. That’s when their adventure began. After living in seven cities, they settled in Nashville to raise their four sons. Her adventure with the Compact began in 2005 when she accepted a position as Stream Restoration Manager. She was named Executive Director in 2014 and has spent the past three years sharing her talents and passions as they relate to education, collaboration and action towards the betterment of the Cumberland River. Welcome Mekayle Houghton as today’s FACE of Nashville!
Briefly explain the mission of the Cumberland River Compact.
We work hard to ensure that the Cumberland River and its tributaries remain a source of clean and abundant water for our region’s growing population. We also work to restore degraded aquatic habitats so that our region continues to support our incredible biodiversity. Fun fact: the Cumberland River Basin comprises the third most biodiverse freshwater region in the world following the Mekong River Delta and the Amazon Basin. We’ll have a River Talk this fall that explains how this magic happened in Tennessee.
You have been involved in the organization for 10+ years. What initially drew you to the organization?
The question that fascinates me is how does a healthy aquatic ecosystem co-exist with our booming economy? I know it’s possible — it relies on everyone believing that this is a worthy goal and making decisions that reflect those values. Whether I am talking with someone about a rain barrel or rain garden, or talking with city leaders about our urban tree canopy, it is the same challenge. I believe that people want both a healthy environment and a growing economy. It’s the Compact’s job to provide the tools and talk about the ways both are possible.
What are your main responsibilities as Executive Director of the Cumberland River Compact?
I feel like a barge pilot. I try to direct the ship through all sorts of conditions. It’s amazing to watch the barges turn the curve from my office in the Bridge Building. It’s called a blind bend, and the pilot steers from behind sometime two barges long and two wide around the corner toward the Ghost Ballet and Nissan Stadium. The pilot is thinking both through present conditions and what’s around the corner. Through that journey, I need to keep our organization on mission, on budget and on time.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? What is the most challenging?
I really like working with people. We have a great staff. Their ideas are fresh and creative, and they have an incredible work ethic. Our board is very engaged and generous. They too have brought great capacity, energy and ideas to the organization. My greatest challenge is that there are only 24 hours in a day.
What are the three top priorities you hope to accomplish in your tenure?
The Cumberland River Compact has been Nashville-centric for most of our 20 years. Our founders were lifelong Nashvillians, but our mission covers the basin, which is 18,000 square miles. It includes the Caney Fork, Big South Fork, Savage Gulf and Land Between the Lakes. A top priority is for the organization to work in the entire basin, build relationships with landowners and develop funding mechanisms to sustain that work.
What is the biggest misconception about the Cumberland River? What is something people don’t know about it?
Fifty-five miles of the Cumberland River flow through Nashville, and 50 of those miles are clean enough for fishing and swimming. We are the rare city whose downtown river is clean enough for swimming. No other Tennessee city has a swimmable downtown river. The Compact hosted a beach day on the east bank of the Cumberland River on Memorial Day weekend. It is such a thrill to swim and paddle in the river with the downtown skyline. That day I think people created all sorts of lifelong memories. We want people to remember that our waters should be clean enough to swim in — then they will expect it and advocate for clean waters.
You have worked to build alliances with other non-profits. What is the importance in working so closely with other organizations?
I am participating in Mayor Barry’s Livable Nashville initiative and chairing the Natural Resources sub-committee. Members come from the public, private and non-profit sectors. We each have different constituencies but were able to make recommendations to the Mayor that would establish Nashville as the “greenest” city in the Southeast. Through this process and many more collaborative projects, I’ve developed a deep affection and respect for my colleagues. Our environmental challenges are systemic challenges — the way our city develops, our food production systems, our transportation networks, our energy sources. Collaboration is essential. Luckily, it’s a joy to collaborate with these smart, funny, warm (and mostly female!) leaders.
What does a day in the life of Mekayle Houghton look like?
A great day starts with a walk around the Richland Creek Greenway. After school drop off, the day is a blur of meetings, troubleshooting, writing and site visits. Then home to cook dinner.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Well, I love amphibians! Growing up in Florida, tree frogs and geckos were a part of my everyday. During summers in North Carolina, I loved to find bright orange newts. As a mom, I saw all of this again through my boys’ eyes. They played in creeks for hours finding crayfish and salamanders. We visited the same vernal pools around town each year during frog season. I feel fortunate that I can tap into that passion for my job. The Cumberland River Basin is home to an amazing species of giant salamander called the hellbender. He is very charismatic! The hellbender population is imperiled, though. They need very clean water to thrive. So he inspires us, and we hope he inspires others to work for clean water. We’re having our first annual Hellbender on the River party Thursday evening, June 22, to raise awareness and money.
What is an important piece of advice you have been given, and who gave you this advice?
My wise co-worker Wendy Smith told me last week, it’s okay to buy a birthday cake when I was feeling guilty about not making one from scratch.
What do you think sets Nashville apart from other Southern cities?
We have so much fresh water! I believe it is a primary driver of our city’s growth. So many people are moving from areas of water scarcity.
Where can we find you when you aren’t working?
Probably working in the garden — it’s a great place to decompress.
Excluding friends, family and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
Strong coffee in the morning, an office window that opens and a hot shower at night — all dependent on clean and abundant water from the Cumberland River.
Thank you to Mekayle Houghton for educating and enlightening us and to Ashley Hylbert for the stunning photos.
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