The Edwards Aquifer: A Collaborative and Consensus-based Stakeholder Process
- General Issues
- Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Mining Industries
- Planning & Development
- Specific Topics
- Environmental Conservation
- Natural Resource Management
- Regulatory Policy
- UA Clinton School of Public Service Students
- Scope of Influence
- Start Date
- End Date
- Time Limited or Repeated?
- A single, defined period of time
- Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
- Deliver goods & services
- Spectrum of Public Participation
- Total Number of Participants
- Open to All or Limited to Some?
- Open to All With Special Effort to Recruit Some Groups
- Targeted Demographics
- Stakeholder Organizations
- General Types of Methods
- Collaborative approaches
- General Types of Tools/Techniques
- Propose and/or develop policies, ideas, and recommendations
- Specific Methods, Tools & Techniques
- Types of Interaction Among Participants
- Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
- Ask & Answer Questions
- Information & Learning Resources
- No Information Was Provided to Participants
- Decision Methods
- General Agreement/Consensus
- Communication of Insights & Outcomes
- Public Report
- Type of Organizer/Manager
- Regional Government
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Type of Funder
- Regional Government
- Evidence of Impact
- Types of Change
- Changes in people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavior
- Implementers of Change
- Stakeholder Organizations
- Appointed Public Servants
- Formal Evaluation
The Edwards Aquifer is a source of groundwater that serves over 2 million people. There are endangered species that depend on the water from the aquifer. Because of these competing interests, a consensus-based stakeholder process was undertaken.
Problems and Purpose
Sierra Club v. Babbitt was a U.S. District Court case that instructed the Texas Legislature to create a solution to protect federally listed endangered species in the San Marcos and Comal Springs. This emphasized the importance of “continuous minimum spring flows” from the Edwards aquifer that these springs and the species within them relied on. The resulting goal was to find a way to manage the water flow from the aquifer while protecting the endangered species that relied on it.
Background History and Context
In 1991, the Sierra Club brought a suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The Sierra Club alleged that the FWS had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by failing to adequately protect listed species in the Comal and San Marcos Springs. The court ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, saying that the Texas legislature should “act immediately to protect the species... before the ‘blunt axes’ of Federal intervention have to be dropped’”.
As a result, the Texas Legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) to help regulate the aquifer withdrawals. However, solutions were delayed because of multiple lawsuits as well as the low financial feasibility of some options. As a result, in 2007 the Texas Legislature through Senate Bill 3 ordered the EAA, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas Water Development Board to “’cooperatively develop a recovery implementation program’ through a facilitated, consensus-based stakeholder process” in order to prevent federal intervention that would have had to happen otherwise. This was the first time such an endeavor was taken on in relation to the Edwards Aquifer.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
This process was legally forced into action through Senate Bill 3 (SB 3) from Texas, that directed the EAA, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas Water Development Board to create a recovery implementation program (RIP). The FWS provided input into the process, and funding was provided by the EAA and other stakeholders, with limited amounts of federal and state funding secured later.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Outside of the original four entities ordered to take part, SB 3 also called for “a steering committee to oversee and assist in the development of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program” (EARIP). 21 of these members were established in SB 3, with five additional members included through targeted recruiting to ensure diverse representation on the committee. The process outside of the steering committee was open to any interested stakeholder. Between self-selection and targeted recruitment, a total of 39 stakeholder groups/individuals took part, including those that were on the steering committee. Participants included government authorities, environmental groups, and businesses, including: San Antonio River Authority, cities of San Marcos, Victoria, and Castroville, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Dow Chemical Company, and the Texas Farm Bureau, to name a few.
Methods and Tools Used
The overall method involved was a multistakeholder group process (as defined here) with an emphasis on consensus, with the Steering Committee defining consensus “as the absence of opposition to a decision”. Procedurally speaking, this translated into a rule that required 75% of Steering Committee members to agree when opposition occurred. However, Gulley and Cantwell say that that decisions were generally made without the need for a vote by the Steering Committee, with Votteler and Gulley stating that “this option only needed to be relied upon twice during the six years of negotiations”.
No information indicates what technologies were used during the process.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Although public organizations took part, and the process was open to interested stakeholders, there was no mention of the greater public taking a direct part in the deliberations, or of the results being communicated directly to the public. Additionally, there is no indication that there was no facilitation during the process. Regarding the ability for the stakeholders to achieve consensus, Votteler and Gulley and Gulley and Cantwell stated that the stakeholders had a clear understanding that this process was the last chance to achieve a regional decision as opposed to one involving federal intervention. Additionally, the realization of likely litigation if a solution was not reached was further reinforced by the occurrence of severe droughts during the process.
Another aspect that helpful was the establishment of a transparent process that allowed stakeholders to develop trust with one another. Additionally, stakeholders agreed that a final decision could not be reached until all issues were resolved, and deadlines imposed by SB 3 helped stakeholders focus and maintain momentum. A part that was also believed to be critical was that stakeholders took ownership of the process, which lead to compromises when the group hit a deliberative wall.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Overall results came out as intended, as the main outcomes of this was a consensus based habitat conservation plan (HCP) that addresses the need for endangered species protection while allowing for water to be drawn for the aquifer. The HCP is still in place today, with a report from March of 2018 providing recommendations including aquifer storage and recovery, habitat protection and restoration, water quality protection, and riparian restoration, among other things. Additionally, the process also resulted in increased trust between stakeholders and stakeholders taking ownership of the process.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Although the HCP is still being implemented and full scale of the resulting effects has yet to be seen, this case still provides an example for successful collaboration between multiple stakeholders from different backgrounds. Part of the reason for success was the situation itself. Fear of federal involvement, which, along with directives from SB 3, pushed stakeholders to come to a consensus. The presence of severe drought and possible litigation resulting from that also emphasized the need for consensus. Additionally, the ability to build trust between stakeholders was significant, as well as stakeholders agreeing that all issues had to be resolved before coming to a final decision, and the stakeholders taking ownership of the process. Although there is no formal evaluation of the process, Votteler and Gulley indicate that participants were satisfied with the outcome, as they say that the Steering Committee only had to vote on a decision twice over six years of negotiations.
 Votteler, T. & Gulley, R. (2014, Jun. 15). The edwards aquifer habitat conservation plan: resolution to over 50 years of water dispute. The Water Report, 124, 1-10. Retrieved from https://waterdisputes.org/habitat-conservation-todd-voteller/
 Gulley, R. L., & Cantwell, J. B. (2013). The Edwards aquifer water wars: the final chapter?. Texas Water Journal, 4(1), 6. https://journals.tdl.org/twj/index.php/twj/article/view/6423
 Gulley, R. L., & Cantwell, J. B. (2013), 10.
 Gulley, R. L., & Cantwell, J. B. (2013). The Edwards aquifer water wars: the final chapter?. Texas Water Journal, 4(1), 1-21.
 Gulley, R. L., & Cantwell, J. B. (2013), 11.
 Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources. Edwards aquifer recovery implementation Program. http://www.pcwp.tamu.edu/media/233160/earip.pdf [broken link]
Update: similar content can be found at https://www.edwardsaquifer.net/pdf/Final_HCP.pdf
 Gulley, R. L., & Cantwell, J. B. (2013), 15.
 Votteler, T. & Gulley, R. (2014, Jun. 15), 10.
 Blanton & Associates, Inc. (2018) Edwards aquifer habitat conservation plan 2017 annual report
This case study was written by Caleb Denton, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in this case study are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.