Is Watershed Planning A Mission Impossible?

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by Butch Clark


Water is a subject of special sensitivity for Coloradans. Soon many in Colorado, and particularly CRA members, may be asked to undertake what seems a mission impossible. The assignment, should you accept it, is watershed planning. Planning for water resources is simply very difficult. Water moves; it’s used and reused, concurrently and sequentially; and it has enormous economic, cultural, political, and, of course, physical significance. Planning for water use seems tougher than land use planning. Reasons given for the demise of several civilizations during the past three thousand years illustrate this difficulty.

Recently articles and discussions of watershed planning say it offers much promise, but why? Does this promise come from simply repackaging or is there something more?

Watershed planning requires looking at the big picture, the watershed. Luna Leopold pointed out years ago that streams integrate all that happens within a watershed. In theory the effort requires a recognition of all the interrelationships among the host of components and processes. A watershed plan is supposed to make everything fit together or make sense with respect to each of these relationships. Watershed planning must integrate with all that will happen.

A theorist on planning, Chris Paris, described planning as simply all conscious attempts to organize action in order to affect future outcomes. Put these two thoughts together and watershed planning amounts to a ubiquitous process with a universal breadth of concern for what happens within an area bounded by physical features influencing which way water flows.

Recently Gary Weatherford wrote of “hydrocommons.” He stretched the boundary for watershed planning to include places whose futures are tied together by social, economic and physical processes resulting from diversions of water from one basin to another. Add into the process consideration of relevant sources for what enters, resides, and may then depart the watershed, e.g., airborne pollution, migrating birds, and tourists.

Planning for water resources must deal with what various authors characterize as “wicked,” “nasty,” or “ornery” problems.These arise from the interactions of technology, culture, and resource limitations. They are poorly understood and tangled up with one another. Such problems also seem to have a propensity for changing themselves while being studied. Sometimes, study itself changes the problems.

Watershed planning also involves decision-making about who gets what or in other terms it is about resource allocation. When the resource “pie” is perceived as shrinking, resource allocation becomes very contentious. Our society has had little experience in decision-making involving allocation of shortages, dis-benefits, and harms. Most resource allocation has generally assumed a sufficient, perhaps growing, or even infinite supply of the resource in question. A notable exception is the allocation of water quantity using the appropriation doctrine with its premise of “First in time is first in right.”Competition for water resources is intensifying. Considerations include much more than just quantity.

Garret Hardin characterized the situation now faced by watershed planning efforts as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” The tragedy is loss of the resource. The cause is behavioral. Harden premised the tragedy on the resource being limited and held in common ownership, on its being available free or at a subsidized cost for as long as the supply lasts, and on individual users acting rationally but in competitive self-interest. Given all this, it makes sense for each user to consume as much as possible, as fast as possible. The individual’s gain is much greater than the individual’s share of any injury to the resources. In this context a resource does not last long. With intensified competition for a resource from multiple uses and users, confrontation with the tragedy is merely accelerated. If watershed planning is about how to divide up a “shrinking pie,” it will become more contentious in direct relation to the perceived pace of shrinkage.

Why then is any promise seen in watershed planning? It comes from the process of watershed planning being able to step around a premise used by Hardin. To control the self-interested behavior that brings on the tragedy, Hardin argues that the only answer is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. This is enforcement of laws and coercion exercised by the government. However, both in practice and theory, the exercise of coercive power has limited efficacy in achieving the control necessary to preserve the resources and avoid the tragedy.

It is evident in the many reports prepared for Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission that management of water resources will be changing. Two reports are particularly relevant. One, by Gail Bingham, describes approaches to dispute or conflict resolution. The other by Betsy Rieke and Doug Kenney examines case studies of watershed resource planning and management efforts and suggests lessons from both successes and failures.

In the reports and other recent discussions watershed planning is an underlying theme. This is the necessity for commitment by all participants — to sharing information, to communicating openly and frequently, to enduring the effort, to reexamining thought, to recycling through tasks, and to accepting uncertainties about outcomes. Still deeper is a commitment to expecting and accepting a different view of the world after going through the watershed planning process. For participants, either as individuals or institutions, the process becomes a shared experience of discovery and learning. The participants change attitudes, perceptions, values, and interpersonal or inter-organizational relationships. They look at the world differently and, importantly, they then define their self-interests differently.

Where watershed planning seems to work, the premised competitive self-interest seems to change to collaborative self-interest. The package of value changes can align participants toward implementation of decisions made in watershed planning. For the participants, the social learning is about how to do something together and about establishing a belief in ways by which to use but also to sustain a resource. This is the foundation for the promise seen in watershed planning.

The successes with watershed planning show it is not a mission impossible. It is simply “extreme” planning. The challenge is so tough that this kind of planning is supposed to be done by locals. These locals must cope with fragmented governmental jurisdictions and responsibilities, with private and institutional self- interests, with limited time, fear of conflict and “train wrecks,” with participants or stakeholders scattered near and far, and with political and economic pressures. It seems the really hard tasks such as watershed planning get passed downward, but that is the way it must work. The CRA and its membership are very needed participants in watershed planning. Obviously they can contribute expertise on riparian matters. However, there is another needed contribution. Most discussions of watershed planning focus on the who and the how, but not on the what, or content. Dealing with the big picture in watershed planning seems daunting. How can a comprehensive understanding of all the interrelationships within a watershed be achieved, whatever its boundaries? How can the process be rational and yet cope with the many un-knowns? If the mission is to be successful, it requires a good framework for organizing content and avoiding oversight of something significant.

Many frameworks have been offered recently. These include for example: Adaptive Resource Management, Ecosystem Management, Integrated Resource Management, Environmental Risk Analysis, and Sustainable Ecosystem Management. Separately each offering has an emphasis. In some kind of appropriate combination they move toward what John Cairns Jr., Hal Salwasser, and so many others suggest should be good watershed planning. CRA members, by experience and inclination, can help launch watershed planning across Colorado, with each effort its appropriate framework. A promising start for a successful mission is a good launch.