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Cooperation and Crisis in California Water Governance

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 21 October 2015

I recently attended a Princeton conference on global governance, complex adaptive systems, and evolutionary theory.  The conference was hosted by ecologist Simon Levin and political scientist Bob Keohane, and featured some of the world’s top scholars in these areas of research. Simon Levin, who has written extensively about complex adaptive systems and a gazillion other things, offered the analogy of the immune system as a way to think how water governance responds to risk and crises.  Immune systems help maintain the function of biological organisms by responding quickly to invasions from external pathogens, or regulating rogue cells that might otherwise cause cancers. Similarly, governance systems may be more robust for maintaining cooperation if they can quickly respond to unforeseen crises.  In increasingly interdependent and connected systems, even small crises (“femtorisks”) can ripple through a system to create more serious emergent risks.

These ideas inspired me to think about the relationship between two central themes in the broad literature on public policy and governance.  One theme is that the goal of governance institutions is to encourage cooperation in the face of collective-action problems, such as the over-pumping of groundwater or collective investment in flood management infrastructure.  The other theme is that governance institutions usually change the most in response to some type of crisis, as illustrated by the oft-heard Western water trope “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” But what is the relationship between these two ideas?

The simplest conceptualization is to recognize the fundamental logic of collective-action where individual actors have no incentive to unilaterally cooperate (e.g.; reduce pumping to a sustainable level, spend money upgrading flood infrastructure) and prefer to free ride on the cooperation of others.  This logic underlies the tragedy of the commons.  Hence, when facing collective action problems like groundwater and flood management, or climate change mitigation, it is difficult to change involved human behavior.  In the long run, such problems can continue until they reach some type of crisis situation—the groundwater basin collapses, the levees breach, the coast floods during a storm, or the climate system reaches a tipping point.  In a hallway conversation during the conference, Scott Barrett of Columbia University likened such crises to self-inflicted wounds.  The troubling part about the wounds is that unlike a sudden accident, we can observe the problem slowly unfolding until some critical point is reached. 

The progress towards such crises is often slow, so decision-makers will not prioritize the issue either at the individual or political system level. The problem then continues towards a fragile boundary that can easily be crossed due to some type of external event.  The current California drought is a good example, as witnessed by massive increase in groundwater pumping, the near disappearance of Delta smelt, and wide spread large and severe wildfires.  Perhaps El Nino will bring another such event, for example if there is so much precipitation that old levees in Sacramento or the Delta islands are breached.  Further down the road, sea level rise in the Bay Area may bring the system to the edge and a major Pacific storm might cause massive damage in a way similar to Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast. 

There is no doubt that institutions change in response to such crises. This is a time-tested hypothesis in policy theory and clearly witnessed with the drought.  Since the drought began, California has seen the passage of new groundwater legislation (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), the creation of institutions like the Governor’s drought task force, more urgency regarding the potential Delta tunnels, and other institutional changes.

When such crises occur, they often lead to what ecologists call hysteresis.  The entire system switches to an alternative stable state and it is extremely costly or impossible to recover the original structure or function of the pre-crisis system.  If groundwater basins subside too much (see Figure), they cannot be recharged at the same level. If the Delta islands flood, they will most likely become permanent aquatic habit.  Massive fires are transforming pine forests into other types of plant communities.   A major storm surge in the coastal Bay Area could wash away pieces of land into the sea forever.  If the Delta smelt goes extinct…well…it is extinct!

Herein lies a huge problem.  Even if the institutions do respond to crisis, it is often too late.  The collective action problems they seek to solve may go past the point of no return.  The institutional change will be moot, and any resources wasted.  This is obviously a very costly way to make public policy.  

Why can’t decision-makers and political systems do a better job of dealing with these types of situations? One reason is the logic of collective action itself, because individuals do not have an incentive to cooperate unless they trust others to do so, or institutions change their incentives.  The answer is also partly due to the psychology of individual decision-making, because slow moving problems with severe future consequences are “psychologically distant” and do not receive enough priority in decision-making.  Crises reduce psychological distance and therefore stimulate action.  Democratic political systems also create incentives for preferring policies with short-run benefits/long-run costs over policies with short-run costs/long-run benefits.  What really matters is next year’s election and agency budget, not what will happen in the future.  The psychology of decision makers is different from the normative calculations made by economic models. 

The idea that failures of cooperation may lead to a crisis is fairly easy to diagnose and I’m certainly not the first one to say it.   Identifying solutions is much harder.  Policy changes probably need to come earlier and faster—can we really wait several years for high priority groundwater basins to develop sustainable groundwater management plans and agencies in California?  Individual decision-makers need to be trained to think in the long-term, perhaps with the assistance of decision support tools that help them more objectively calculate future costs and benefits of various policy options.  Saying these things is easy, but getting it to happen is much harder precisely because of how incentives and the psychology of decision-making operates in the first place.  We spent a lot of time at the conference thinking about how to solve these types of problems, but really no clear solution emerged.  Perhaps the immune system is not the right analogy—we need to be thinking in terms of preventative health.  I’m happy to hear any suggestions about how to get make environmental governance go in for an early check-up so that we can build cooperation before the crisis.  Or we can all retreat to Paul Ehrlich’s basement, which he assures me is well-equipped for the reset of global civilization.