Manufacturing Consensus

By Jesse Libra
October 23, 2014

Consensus-based decision-making is all the rage these days. It makes sense – important policy decisions with broad effects should include input from the people most effected. There is a downside, though – consensus-based decision-making can be gruelingly slow and create an atmosphere that strongly discourages decent. Requiring stakeholder consensus in emergency situations involving strong political interests can dangerously delay action.

Lake Travis in 2011, the first year LCRA was forced to deviate from the 2010 WMP (Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2011).

Lake Travis in 2011, the first year LCRA was forced to deviate from the 2010 WMP (Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2011).

Last month, after four years of stakeholder meetings, correction, and review the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) unanimously approved much-needed changes to their Water Management Plan. The drought worsened significantly during those four years, forcing the LCRA to deviate from the current 2010 WMP multiple times to avoid declaring the current drought worse than the drought of record – a move that would prompt immediate supply cutbacks to municipalities and electric utilities. The long delay in vital plan development was due, in part, to a requirement that the LCRA use a consensus process.

Allocation of water on the Lower Colorado is a hot-button issue. There are many different water-users with different levels of political influence. However, it can be counter-productive to allow political interests the power to halt progress towards a water management plan that works. This means we need a transparent stakeholder consensus process. In situations where a consensus process is necessary, educating stakeholders on the science and models behind planning can drastically expedite consensus, especially in highly politicized situations.

On August 20th, the committee members met with stakeholders to review the newest iteration of the WMP, which contains mandatory orders from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to ensure supply for firm water customers, namely municipalities. With municipal, agricultural, commercial, and environmental stakeholders present, consensus looked unlikely. At the meeting, downstream stakeholders representing rice farmers and the Matagorda Bay estuary asked the committee to give them sixty days to review the plan and the science behind it. They were given three weeks, but it was enough. On Tuesday, September 16th, the same group of stakeholders approached the podium and urged the board to approve the changes to the WMP and the board passed the plan the next day. The plan still needs to be approved by TCEQ.

The work done by the LCRA staff during those three weeks was crucial in achieving consensus. By explaining water availability models to stakeholders and using those models to play out scenarios in the plan, the LCRA staff was able to alleviate some of the concerns of downstream users. Even those who were not pleased with all the details of the plan supported it and expressed appreciation for the transparency and respect they felt during the process.

Consensus processes are slow and cumbersome. They contribute to the idea that institutions, especially public ones, are bureaucratic and hampered with red tape; however, sometimes they are necessary. When they are necessary, it is vital that mediators make sure all stakeholders have a firm understanding of the science behind the issue.

Jesse Libra is a Masters Candidate at the LBJ School of Public Policy and the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on water policy and the effects of land use change on water resources.