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Dispatch: Managing Water Without People?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 05 November 2010

Can you manage water without thinking about people? I went to an eye-opening meeting between UC Davis researchers and many program managers at the California Department of Water Resources. DWR is the main state agency responsible for water supply infrastructure, and they are heavily based in the civil engineering profession. They are also responsible for publishing the California State Water Plan. The meeting was about funding research at UC Davis to help DWR make decisions and do water planning. Among the materials provided at the meeting was a big wish list of projects that UCD researchers might get involved with.

Almost completely missing from this wish list was any social science or consideration of the people who actually use the water. The research wish list consisted almost entirely of hydrological, ecological, or engineering models of some sort. Obviously such models are absolutely necessary for water planning and management. And people are not completely absent--some of the models do capture human decision making by assuming some type of optimization like in Richard Howitt's SWAP model where farmers are making optimal decisions. Other models look at empirical predictions for example how much water is typically consumed by a population of a certain size. The optimization assumptions are useful for engineering models because they provide a mathematically tractable way to integrate decisions into computer programs and simulations.

But there is no doubt that such modelling excercises, while necessary, are extreme simplifications of how people make decisions about water in terms of both consumption and policy decisions. Real decision-making is far richer and involves substantial uncertainty and strategic behavior. People are boundedly rational at best, driven by emotion and habit at worst, and embedded in collective-action problems that create free riding incentives for sustainable water use. None of this richness is captured in the engineering, hyrological ,or integrated models. And while some of the economists involved might debate me on the previous point, I think everybody would admit that the models are extreme simplifications and that such simplifications are necessary and useful in the face of complexity.

So I sat in that meeting feeling very uneasy that one of the major water management agencies in the state of California was almost completely ignoring people. Shouldn't people be at least half of the equation when it comes to a social-ecological system? But just pointing out the problem is not enough. It is incipient on social scientists like me to do something about it, and prove that a more comprehensive and rich analysis of human behavior can be useful in these settings. But this is not an easy thing to do. The mathematical tractability of optimization assumptions fits much more neatly into the engineering mindset. I think that network analysis, stakeholder surveys, water user surveys, and other forms of empirical work can provide some insights. But they are not as immediately useful as I would like. It will take some work with DWR and other similar agencies to really figure out how to make water management something that does not ignore people. I think that if we engage in that work, eventually water management will lead to more sustainable outcomes. Engineering and hydrology alone certaintly have not solved all the problems.