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Learning from Regions: A Comparative Appraisal of Climate, Water, and Human Interactions in the Columbia and Colorado River Systems

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Session Description: 

The need for assessments or appraisals of knowledge about climate variations, climate impacts and, applications, has been identified through decades of research and experience in many fields. The major lesson has been that variability, change, degree of impact, and surprises, result from a variety of climatological, social, economic and ecological circumstances interacting over different spatial and temporal scales. New knowledge and opportunities continuously arise as the future unfolds. The “regional scale” offers a useful organizational unit on which to coordinate and evaluate socially relevant research cognizant of geophysical, cultural, and jurisdictional boundaries. “Regions” exist at the nexus of the local to global continuum. The Western U.S. offers and has offered unique opportunities for identifying lessons for strategic learning about the management of cross-scale climatic risks. Fresh water is a strategic resource that structures the West's natural and cultural landscapes and is a major determinant of sub-regional economies and demographic patterns. The purpose of this proposal is to hold a workshop with the AGCI to perform comparative appraisals of the evolution of environmental and societal interactions in the Columbia and the Colorado River Systems. Both basins exhibit the characteristics of "closing water systems", where, development of mechanisms to get resource users to acknowledge interdependence and to engage in negotiations and binding agreements becomes necessary. It has become quite clear that management evolves from one period to another, and that distinctive requirements and opportunities for solving past problems be recognized. The first goal of this comparative assessment is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of integrated river basin development in these river systems in the context of climate variations and change. The approach is based on the premise that to know how effectively society might prepare itself for the consequences of future and uncertain environmental variations and change, requires identification and evaluation of present methods of how society copes with environmental variability and its impacts.

A conspicuous aspect of water resources management has been the lack of careful post-audits of the social, economic and consequences of previous programs and projects. Three kinds of assessment questions may thus be asked: (1) What is known about the effects of past development programs on the environment? (2) What are, and how effective are, present programs? and (3) What appears to be the principal future effects of alternative adjustments?. "Assessment " is considered here to mean assembling, summarizing, organizing, interpreting and possibly reconciling pieces of existing knowledge and communicating them so that they are relevant and helpful for the deliberations of policy makers, including paths to decisions and their consequences. The second goal is to explore whether lessons learned in one basin can and which cannot be transferred to other basin, and, thirdly, to provide a framework for doing meaningful comparisons.

The Colorado and Columbia Rivers have drainage basins which are approximately the same size in area, cross international boundaries, are heavily regulated and dammed, have endangered species issues, have substantial hydropower development, and have strong ENSO-related and decadal-scale signals. Both have initiated and implemented Adaptive Management Programs. The sectors and stakeholders affected in each region are (1) water rights holders (2) agriculture (including business and farmers in area of origin), (3) the environment (including instream flows, wetlands and other ecosystems, and water quality), (4) urban interests, (5) Native American tribes, (6) non-agricultural rural communities, and (7) federal taxpayers.

Significant differences also exist between the basins, e.g. the Columbia enters the U.S. from a developed country, while the Colorado leaves the U.S. through a developing country, storage to flow ratio is about 0.40 in the Columbia and about 4 in the Colorado, ENSO signals are of different sign, the Colorado has significant out-of-basin transfers while the Columbia does not, etc. Both basins, however, have tremendous symbolic and economic significance in the West, and in the U.S. as a whole.

Studies of the first-order impacts of climate in the major river basins of the West indicate that vulnerability exists in the areas of storage and consumptive depletion's vs. renewable supply. Critical trends and comparable issues confronting sustainable resource use in both basins can be summarized under the following headings: Population and Consumption, Water quality, Environmental water allocation, Uncertain reserved water rights, Ground water overdraft, Outmoded institutions, Aging urban water infrastructure, changing Federal, state and local interaction. Responses have included: Water Banking, Inter-basin Transfers, Advanced Decision support/expert systems, Streamflow and Demand forecasting, Drought management programs, Indicators, Efficiency improvements.

The complications of changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall, soil moisture, runoff, frequency and magnitudes of droughts and floods, have not been explicitly included in response planning. Systems design, operational inflexibility, and legal and institutional constraints also reduce the adaptability of water systems and confound most recommendations to date on responding to climate change.

Among the most likely to produce critical situations in the future are the occurrence of extreme (severe and persistent) drought, large-scale inter-basin transfers, quantification of reserved Native American water rights, and an energy crisis. One of the most important benefits that may be realized through a comparative study, as proposed here, is an understanding why some policies have been chosen over others, which ones rise to prominence, and which are allowed to persist. Recommendations for action may be similar in both cases, e.g. increased public participation. The identification of the barriers to implementation in one setting may shed light on the likelihood of success of similar actions in a different setting. In his many important works Gilbert White identified the major elements of integrated basin development as follows (1) multiple-purpose storage reservoirs; (2) basin-wide planning; and (3) comprehensive regional development. A major implementation strategy for these elements, regionally and internationally, has been the integration of land and water resource planning under unified river basin administrations such as the Northwest Power Planning Council. The response experience has given rise to the over-arching concept of "Adaptive Management", as is being implemented to different extents in the Colorado and Columbia. Adaptive management is an approach to natural resources policy that recognizes a fundamental imperative: Policies and their implementation are experiments. Learning from interventions in natural systems is thus needed to reduce uncertainty and to prepare for surprise or unintended consequences. A key focus of the Workshop will be on comparing mitigative and adaptive responses especially on the types implemented, their effectiveness, alternatives, and constraints on and capacity for implementation. The meeting will be structured so as to continually re-emphasize the comparative approach. The overall goal from the scientific viewpoint is to identify opportunities for learning on the time and space scales that are most relevant to the management of water and ecological resources in a changing environment.

The Special Session: Learning from Regions: A Comparative Appraisal of Climate, Water, and Human Interactions in the Colorado and Columbia River Systems

Bases for Comparison

• Nature of Environmental variations and criticality
• Comparable range of environmental, political and economic conditions
• Identifiable roles of historical antecedents and analogies e.g. identifying how present decisions are constrained by past choices of water management strategies and particular events in the region
• Existing and ongoing research in regions provides a basis for comparison
• Comparability of trajectories of change and response: transferability, local initiatives in each basin etc.
One of the aims of the meeting design itself is to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of past meetings of this type and try to improve the manner in which synthesis is achieved. To our knowledge no attempt of this kind has be performed within the U.S. Successful synthesis is particularly difficult when the range of subjects is large, the issues are complex and subtle, and when the depth of understanding in some areas may not great. One weakness observed from “interdisciplinary” meetings is that synthesis does not occur as effectively if "saved" for later in the meeting, rather than built in to the meeting structure as a constant ongoing activity. A series of major themes will be chosen for examination. In each session, two regional papers and one discussant paper will be solicited. The principal criterion for selecting these presenters will be a need for broad familiarity with the issues and the relevant experts including managers in each basin. To allow for more direct comparison of approaches and issues in each basin a suggested problem-oriented template for speaker presentations follows: (a) historical setting and present critical issues, (b) trends, (c) conditioning factors and key events, (d) projections, (e) alternatives, and (f) evaluations.

Proposed Session Topics

1. Overview of the Colorado and Columbia River Basins: Changing Environments

2. Social and Economic Transformations in the West
- Demography
- Agriculture and Irrigation
- Urbanization
- Energy:
- Role of particular events in influencing decisions in this century

3. Climate, ecological, hydrological variability and change: cross-scale issues
- Extremes, ENSO, Decadal-scale ecological variability and abrupt changes

4. Carrying out meaningful comparisons: the ideas of “Regions” and of “Watersheds”

5. Law: Rights, Natural Resources, Water, and the Environment
Intra- and Inter-state Agreements and their Impacts
• Water
• Extractive
• Environmental (ESA, CWA, CAA)

6. Trans-boundary Dimensions and Joint Commissions
- Mexico
- Canada

7. Actors, issue frames and roles
Native American Tribes
Changing relationships at the federal, state, and local levels

8. Equity: Evolution of Approaches
- Watershed Planning and Local Initiatives
- Water Banking
- Increased role of the Public
• Western Governors Association Enlibra Principles

9. Regional coordination and implementation
- Adaptive Ecosystem Assessment and Management: How did we get here?
- Northwest Power Planning Council and the Colorado River Adaptive Management Program
Columbia River Water Management Group, Upper Colorado River Basin Commission
- CALFED attendees

10. Lesson drawing and lesson learning: Where and why have “lessons” been used or not?
• "What cooperative arrangements need to be considered between public and private institutions and between researchers and practitioners?”

Panel Commentary: What should we do with our "lessons"?

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Human Contributions & Responses
  • Water Cycle