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The Q&A: Todd Votteler and Robert Gulley

In this week's Q&A, we interview Robert Gulley and Todd Votteler of Water Dispute Resolution LLC.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Drs. Robert Gulley (l.) and Todd Votteler are the principal officers at Water Dispute Resolution, L.L.C.

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Todd Votteler is executive manager of science, intergovernmental relations and policy at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. Robert Gulley is a water consultant and former executive director of the Habitat Conservation Plan at the Edwards Aquifer Authority. Both Votteler and Gulley have long been active participants in developing the recently approved plan, now known as the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan, which has been heralded as a landmark regional agreement after decades of dispute over pumping of the Edwards in the San Antonio region. The two have now started their own business called Water Dispute Resolution LLC, which will serve clientele outside of Texas in resolving water and environmental conflicts.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: When a lot of us think water dispute resolution, we think lawyers. What does your venture hope to offer?

Robert Gulley: We’re interested in offering the benefit of our experience to others. Todd’s broad background in water issues, at the policy level and at the practical level ... brings something important to the table. His involvement isn’t just limited to groundwater but also involves surface water. And I think those are very important assets that he’ll be bringing to the table.

Todd Votteler: [Gulley’s] decades of experience with the Endangered Species Act and salmon cases out west is just really irreplaceable experience.

Gulley: Many of the disputes that we’re seeing often involve endangered species. They’re becoming far more important in water management, far more important than a lot of people would like … but it’s a reality.

Trib+Water: What kinds of specific services do you expect to offer to clients?

Gulley: There are a whole variety of things that we can offer to a potential client. Sometimes it might just simply be a meeting or two meetings in which we talk about what we’ve learned, and try to help them put that in the context of the issues that they’re dealing with. Others could involve actually sitting down and trying to mediate a dispute, and trying to play a very active role, and anywhere in between.

Votteler: I’m still keeping my day job with the river authority, and so this is very much something I’m going to be doing on my own time. My primary interest is really in disputes that are outside of the state. It’s really going to be different for each dispute. Some of it is just coming up with potential models for how [resource managers] might approach resolving their dispute that they may not be aware of.

Trib+Water: Why start this venture now?

Gulley: I think it’s obvious that if you watch the evening news and read the newspapers, we’re in a serious drought in the West. There are an increasing number of transboundary disputes, some between states and other countries like Texas and Mexico, and others between states, such as we see in Georgia and Florida. Water disputes are becoming a very important national issue.

Votteler: Many of these disputes have gone on for decades, like the Edwards Aquifer dispute. When you look across the West and what’s happening now, nothing is really new here, for the most part. But I think there’s now a recognition among water resource managers that conflict management is really a fundamental aspect of water management today. And I think in the past, that was not the case. And so I see the terrain shifting with regard to that and more and more water resource managers becoming interested in dispute resolution and how that might help them.

Trib+Water: What lessons did you learn in your experience working on the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan that you think could be applied to other disputes outside Texas?

Gulley: As the program manager of the EARIP, [I was involved] in a dispute that had 50 years of very bad history, with numerous attempts to try to resolve it through mediation and other forms of intervention that were unsuccessful. And I think that over the course of time in dealing with the RIP, the RIP found ways to be able to bridge the differences that had kept them apart for so long. Many of these were small things about how they conducted business. Some of them were just spending enough time working with the issues to be able to restore the trust that had disappeared from the region with respect to the water issues.

Trib+Water: In today’s big water disputes, is it possible for both sides to be satisfied with the resolution? Or will there inevitably be winners and losers?

Gulley: I believe we found a way to come up with win-win situations. The answer to your question is very definitely yes. When you’re dealing with issues between states, it can be more complex and more difficult, but I think if you go about approaching it correctly, I think it’s quite possible to have a successful result.

Votteler: I think it’s also important to recognize that sometimes these disputes don’t really lend themselves to resolution until you have a crisis, like a drought.

Gulley: That’s a very important statement. A lot of people believe that it takes a crisis to be able to get people to understand the importance of reaching a resolution. Decision-making under crisis is not always the best way to go about it, and unfortunately, that’s what you’re left with.

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