The Protracted Dispute over the Edwards Aquifer: Revisiting and Reframing Multiparty Stakeholder Conflicts in Management, Regulation, Allocation, and Property Rights
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The 2011 drought was the worst single-year climatic occurrence in Texas’ recorded history. Texas must meet residential and economic development requirements of a population that will nearly double state wide over the next 50 years, and potentially grow over 300 percent along the IH 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio and the Hill Country where the Edwards Aquifer is located. Extreme population growth increases stress on existing natural resources and will require dramatic improvements in water conservation and reuse, as well as preservation of land held in conservation to protect water quantity and quality. Located in the south-central region of Texas, the Edwards Aquifer is an underground karst formation with water flowing through it that has been at the center of controversy for over 60 years. As the sole source water supply for nearly two million people in San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer region, the controversy over the use of the Edwards Aquifer water centers on four major concerns: its limited physical structure, its multiple users, its potential contamination, and the potential loss of endangered species. This research revisits and builds on a previous study by Putnam and Peterson (2003) who explored a multi-issue protracted debate from 1980 to 1997 by diverse stakeholders concerning management and water allocation of the Edwards Aquifer. The Putnam and Petersen study inspired and guided this research which examines multi-party issues surrounding the Edwards Aquifer since 1997, and assesses the degree to which the original debate has changed. In doing so, this research provides substantial background to the evolution of the dispute, and centers it within the history of changing climate patterns unique to the State of Texas. The research approach is primarily qualitative in nature and employed “Interactional Frame Theory” to demonstrate “characterization” and “identity” framing of stakeholders’ issues surrounding the aquifer from 1997 to present day. In addition, the concept of “framing” allowed for shaping, organizing, and focusing on new agendas of today’s stakeholders. The results of this study identified key stakeholder groups in the Edwards Aquifer region that, as a result of Texas Senate Bill 3 in 2007, through a consensus-based approach have successfully mitigated the intractable environmental conflict of the aquifer. The stakeholder process has implemented a Habitat Conservation Plan to protect spring flows, downstream economic interests, and endangered species. However, lingering problems related to property rights issues and potential “takings” liability, as well as a voting rights lawsuit brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens and enjoined by the San Antonio Water System, threaten to unravel the process. This research is significant in that it demonstrates how different stakeholder groups use the same repertoire in describing their “frames” and perspectives on managing an environmental natural resource. Ostensibly, understanding how different stakeholder groups frame environmental issues will facilitate consensus building and engender success in establishing agreements and common purposes for natural resource management. Understanding how past and present conflicts arise and evolve will also contribute towards mitigating “intractable” environmental conflicts concerning all aspects and issues of land and water resource management and conservation.