The Price of a Sustainable Environment

The Price of a Sustainable Environment

In December 1997, the Edwards Aquifer Authority conducted a series of public hearings in five south Texas communities. It wanted to know what people thought about proposed new rules governing withdrawals from the region’s large aquifer. Years of excessive pumping had seriously lowered groundwater tables, threatening the viability of farms, urban areas, and federally protected wildlife species. So evident had the problem become that nearly everyone accepted the need both for pumping limits and for a permit system that allocated pumping rights. What wasn’t accepted, and what the hearings came to focus on, were the terms of the pumping rights that water users would acquire. Would these rights be tradable commodities, bought and sold in the market? Would a regional market develop in these rights, shifting water flows invisibly to their highest-priced uses? Would the region, in short, buy a ticket on the market train, to journey toward its water-use future?

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