July 26, 2004
Water is a tie that binds all living things, but it can also be a source of conflict, particularly when scarcity becomes an issue. Buoyed by the idea that access to water is a human right, an international movement is underway to foster cooperation in the management of shared water resources. With more than 25 years of experience in environmental engineering, policymaking and conflict resolution, LBJ School Professor David Eaton has supported efforts to mediate water policy between some of the world's most contentious neighbors. From Israel and Palestine to India, Nepal and Bangladesh to the United States and Mexico, he has devised a number of strategies to bring stakeholders together, help them reconcile their interests, and consider innovative ways that they can jointly manage shared water resources.
This summer, Eaton is bringing his internationally recognized expertise to his own backyard to help negotiate the terms of an unprecedented interbasin water transfer from the Lower Colorado River Basin to neighboring Williamson County. The project is a study of the intersection of civic engagement, environmental science and policymaking.
In response to high population growth and limited water supplies in Williamson County, the Texas Legislature in 1999 passed House Bill 1437, which authorized the Lower Colorado River Authority to sell up to 25,000 acre-feet of water per year to Williamson County. A key provision of the bill ensures that the sale will result in "no net loss" of water from the Colorado River Basin. It also requires that a plan to mitigate the effect of the transferred water be developed and approved by the LCRA Board of Directors.
So how exactly do you replace more than 8 billion gallons of water per year in the Colorado River Basin without short-changing the users? To find solutions the LCRA turned to Eaton, who has directed several major projects on water conservation in Texas. With the support of LBJ School master's student Seda Tamur, Eaton is working with an engineering firm, CH2M Hill, to identify useful technologies and develop a water resource strategy. Possible water replacement methods range from laser land leveling on rice farms in the Garwood Irrigation District to reuse of wastewater that will return the exported water back to the Colorado River. Eaton's goal is to develop a plan that would satisfy the public and protect the environment. The recommendations will be presented to the LCRA board, which will adopt a definition to use in determining compliance with HB 1437.
Eaton says that in his experience, politics surrounding water issues are almost always controversial and often heated. He expects HB1437 to be no exception. To diffuse the tension he is using a straightforward, democratic approach that has proven effective in the past. Eaton and Tamur are holding a series of public meetings designed to engage those concerned about the water transfer in every aspect of the decision-making process.
"We seek to reflect the views of the people of the river basin," said Eaton. "So we want to hear what people want. We want to take that into account. We then want to frame a recommendation to the LCRA that is supportive of what people want and the LCRA's mission."
Transparency in this process is critical, and as a special measure the remarks of each person participating in the meetings are transcribed by a court stenographer. "This ensures that everyone is heard by the LCRA board verbatim, unfiltered, and with no editorial comments," said Eaton.
"This project really cares about what people think," said Tamur. "At the first meeting, the questions challenged us to think about the project in ways we hadn't considered before. It's interesting to see how public input can change the implementation of a project by a state organization."
For Tamur, a native of Turkey, the public forum approach is something new – it is a practice she said is uncommon in Turkey.
"This seems to be a unique experience and Austin seems to have a very different atmosphere than even other places around the country," she said. "The public is very responsive and attentive and the interaction is peaceful and collaborative."
Thanks to an informative website, those who are unable to attend the meetings can still participate in the process. Hosted by the LBJ School, the site provides background information on the interbasin water transfer, a glossary of terms, a map of the LCRA service area, detailed descriptions of water replacement strategies, and contacts for additional information. The site can be accessed at http://www.hb1437.com.
State and Regional Water Plans: Performance Measures for Assessing Water Plan
of Pollution Prevention at the Lower Colorado River Authority
the Waters of the Paso del Norte: A People's Guide
Water: Doing More with Less in the Lower Rio Grande
a Dry Sponge: Water Planning in Texas
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
26 July 2004
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