California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

How are California water managers thinking about climate change? It depends

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Extreme events like drought are expected to occur more frequently with climate change. Photo by Faith Kearns.

When it comes to using climate change science to help guide decisions, researchers have found that California water managers fall into three fairly distinct groups based on how they work with scientific information and how they think about the future. While some water managers are actively using climate change science, others are not using it at all. In between these two extremes is a group that uses some climate information, but tends to defer to politics in decision-making.

As part of a research team, Zeke Baker and Julia Ekstrom of University of California, Davis interviewed drinking water utility managers in California to better understand their perspectives on extreme events like droughts and floods. The team wondered how water managers were preparing for both the events they are seeing today and those they expect to see with a changing climate.

“The most interesting part of this study to me is that it seems like climate science is not reaching one particular group of water managers, largely those managing small water systems that often serve rural communities,” says Ekstrom.

She notes that this could be for many reasons -- one is that “climate science information is not prepared and offered in ways that these water managers, and their board members, are receptive to. I don't know an easy solution to this problem, but it does seem like a big weakness in linking climate science and water management practice.”

In addition, Ekstrom says the fact that a large group of drinking water managers are not considering climate change at all could intensify existing inequities. Many rural communities in California are already at a disadvantage in terms of the resources and political power needed to adapt to climate change.

After several dry years, the winter of 2016-17 brought record breaking precipitation and the Sacramento Weir was opened to allow flood waters into the Yolo Bypass for the first time in a decade. Photo by Faith Kearns.

Different ways water managers are thinking about climate change

In 2016, the research team conducted interviews with 51 water managers from California drinking water utilities ranging from large to very small, and across those that rely on groundwater, surface water, or a combination of both. They found three general types of orientations to climate change information that informed the manager's alternative visions and preparations for the future.

First, there was a group that was actively engaged with climate models and what they project for the future for their region or water system. These were mostly large water system managers that had a sense of trust in using scientific models for decision making. Their responses included this one:

“We say ‘look, what's the future demand, and what do we think our future supplies will be, and how do we meet the gap?' We use a couple different models…we take all kinds of assumptions into the model to create that water supply outlook according to a 2040 demand. Our agency has a lot of threats out into the future, so we see climate change as one of those.”

A second group of water managers, primarily from small, rural water systems was not actively engaged with climate science, and did not really use or particularly trust scientific information in decision-making. One interviewee in this group said:

“People were told there was going to be a Godzilla El Niño last year, and the guy who predicted it, he apologizes, but great, we spent a lot of time and energy planning to protect our [infrastructure] if they flooded out. We don't have enough resources to plan for something that then doesn't happen.”

Finally, there was a group that was more indistinct. Many drew upon scientific information and climate models, but tended to weight their decisions more on the politics of water supply. One respondent said:

“…a sizeable contingent of board members don't believe there's such a thing as climate change. So we have to navigate this, preparing long-term planning management, with this factor of, ‘well what are you doing? Are you committing resources to something that may or may not even be a problem?'”

Providing climate change information for managers that may not value it

To better understand how science is used in policy and decision-making, researchers have recently turned attention to the idea that information should be supplied to meet user demand. While that theory does seem to hold in some circumstances, the researchers were interested in cases where potential users of scientific information aren't necessarily demanding it. The study emphasizes that the supply/demand narrative for scientific information has yet to involve sociological consideration of the cultural meanings attached to climate change and information.

"Here, we were really trying to understand the kind of cultural contexts and barriers that face water managers so that we can perhaps better tailor information for them,” says Baker, concluding that “it seems an economic metaphor is not sufficient for capturing the complex ways that climate change is being considered among water managers.” More importantly, he says, “we may need to better understand the role of things like distrust in scientific information or social conflicts as bigger barriers.”

For their next study, the team is turning their attention to the production of climate science information in California to see if they can better understand how to overcome some of the challenges that they found. Ekstrom says, “In addition to the issue of climate change adaptation, I think it's important and could be useful to take a step back and look across the whole water management system and ask ourselves whether an array of processes are going in a healthy direction that will serve Californians well in the future.”

Posted on Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at 8:25 PM

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