Dr. Robert Gulley. Courtesy photo.

The presence of former Mayor Lila Cockrell at the Downtown Rotary Club’s March luncheon meeting at the Bright Shawl caused a buzz as the 93-year-old San Antonio icon took her seat at the head table. She came to see her son-in-law, Dr. Robert Gulley, speak about his new book, “Heads Above Water,” a history of the deal that brokered the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan.

Gulley will be one of 89 authors appearing at Saturday’s San Antonio Book Festival, participating on a  panel titled, “Running (Out Of) Water,” along with Seamus McGraw, author “Betting the Farm on a Drought,” and Dr. Kenna Lang Archer from San Angelo State University, author of “Unruly Waters.” The panel of will be moderated by David Ladensohn, founder and chairman of Water Fund, LP, which invests in Western water rights and global water securities.

"Heads Above Water: the Inside Story of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program," by Robert L. Gulley. Publisher: Texas A&M University Press (January 21, 2015).
“Heads Above Water: the Inside Story of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program,” by Robert L. Gulley. Publisher: Texas A&M University Press (January 21, 2015).

At the Rotary lunch, Gulley took the microphone after announcements and introductions and soon was regaling the crowd: “This is the third time I’ve talked to you all about the EARIP,” he said, referring to past talks delivered over the last six years. Gulley has a doctorate in anatomy, a slew of published scientific papers to his name, post-doctorate work in neurobiology at Harvard, and he earned a law degree at the University of Texas-Austin. That combination of science, law and research made him the ideal candidate nearly a decade ago to lead a complex regional effort to resolve long-term water use and conservation challenges and avert federal intervention in management of water conservation in cEntral and South Texas.

For six years, from 2007-13, Gulley was central to brokering a historic deal that has become the region’s roadmap for managing the Edwards Aquifer, our most precious water resource. At the outset, few gave Gulley much chance of succeeding at a process that involved mediating dozens of competing, often adversarial communities and water-management entities.

When Andy Samson at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos asked Gulley to write a book about his experience as executive director of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Program and the mediator for the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP), Sampson asked: Why did the RIP succeed when so many other attempts had failed?

Gulley said his greatest lesson learned writing the book was that Samson had asked the wrong question. “All the preceding work, even the failures, moved  us toward solving the problems,” he said. “Previous plans failed, but they didn’t stop (the process).”

Such lessons will come in handy as Gulley assumes the job of director of Economic Growth and Endangered Species Management in the office of Texas Comptroller Glenn Hager. That’s right: Endangered Species Management is handled out of the Texas Comptroller’s’ office. That seems an odd match for an office that’s mostly in charge of money. But a little-known law passed in 2011 put endangered species in the comptroller’s purview. The idea was that any time a Texas animal ends up on a federal endangered species list, industrial activity is in danger, too — and that means economic officials should be involved.

After years of spats at the state capitol over who controls endangered species policy, Hegar said hiring Gulley is a step toward striking a more conciliatory tone. The new comptroller said he expects to take a “different direction” than that of his predecessor, former Comptroller Susan Combs.

Gulley accepted the new challenge in January. And like his celebrated feat of negotiating a lasting peace between Texas’ various water rights constituencies in the EARIP, Gulley will need all the help he can get in his new role.

Gulley expects to focus on four specific species over the next six months: the Spot tailed earless lizard, Spragues pippit, freshwater mussels that occupy “practically all the rivers in Texas,” and the iconic Monarch butterfly, currently being considered for “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act. The Monarch’s celebrated migration from Canada to Mexico and back each year is threatened by loss of milkweed habitat along its migratory routes and the illegal destruction of oyamel forests in the mountains of Michoacán, where tens of millions of the butterflies roots in the winter.

Once again, Gulley’s challenge will be to mediate different state entities, private landowners, environmentalists and others to achieve working policies that avert further federal intervention. It’s a formidable task, but time around, fewer people will be predicting failure.

*Featured/top image: Dr. Robert Gulley. Courtesy photo. 

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...