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Dispatch: Lessons Learned at Integrated Regional Water Management Conference

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 28 May 2011

I spent all day Tuesday and most of the day Wednesday at the conference for Integrated Regional Water Management Planning sponsored by the Water Education Foundation . I was invited to participate as a panelist on the future of IRWMP in California, in particular what criteria we should use to evaluate success. The invitation was stimulated by a paper that I wrote on a pilot study of the Bay Area IRWMP, which pointed out the challenges of IRWMP and suggested that the Bay Area had only made incremental changes from water politics as usual.

The conference was a great opportunity to learn about many of the programs going on across the state. While there were many creative titles to the panel talks, what most of them boiled down to was relating the on-the-ground experiences of the program managers. This was great for me; it was like a 15-hour crash course, case study in what is really happening. To a social scientist, this is qualitative data for analysis. Even though I think most of the participants related success stories rather than failures, I will quickly summarize the things I learned.

First, I don't think the challenges that I found in the Bay Area are unique. Eventhough different programs have had more or less success than the Bay Area, all of them must deal with issues of how to prioritize water projects to acheive integrated benefits, engage disadvantaged communities, and incrementally increase the level of collaboration. There is not a single program that I saw where one could say there has been a fundamental transformation in water management decisions. But, I don't think we should expect there to be one. The question is whether or not IRWMP is heading on the right path.

Second, I was quite encouraged that IRWMP is heading somewhere positive (although hearing more about failures would aid my confidence in that statement). One of the main concerns of conference participants was the dwindling amounts of state and federal funding, and what the future of IRWMP would be without it. While almost everybody acknolwedged that at first IRWMP was "about the money, stupid", there was also widespread agreement that the collaborative process produced lasting value that went beyond the funding. In particular, participants created new relationships and agreements about the common goals of watershed management in their regions. There is a large body of social science research that suggests building such social capital is the foundation for the evolution of cooperation over the long-term. For example, some participants mentioned that forming a water community provides a platform to pursue a wide range of other funding opportunities outside of IRWMP. Another participant said something to the effect that while water management requires money, agreement, and networks, that even if the money goes away, at least IRWMP produced the other ingredients. Certainly conflict did not disappear in these regions, but people saw a shift towards collaboration. This is exactly what I found in the Bay Area study, and also exactly what the theoretical literature on collaborative governance predicts.

The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority provides an illustrative example. SAWPA was frequently mentioned as one of the leading success stories of IRWMP, and the general manager of the program certainly was a dynamic personality who made a good case. But their success did not suddenly appear; rather they brought a long history of regional collaboration into the context of the IRWMP. Other programs with less experience in collaboration, like the Bay Area, mentioned that building such relationships is a learning process and that less experienced programs needed the opportunity to figure it out. One water manager used the analogy of a symphony, saying that while agencies like SAWPA were playing classical scores, other regions were still learning their instruments. I think this highlights different trajectories in the evolution of cooperation.

Third, most of the programs are still facing the challenge of how to prioritize local implementation projects to acheive regional benefits. As far as I know, each region developed a different system for prioritizing projects. For example, the SAWPA general manager mentioned that one successful strategy is to forget about trying to use IRWMP to fund all the existing pet projects of the various stakeholders. Rather, try to find a brand new set of projects that have grander visions of meeting regional needs. While I agree this is a useful idea, I also think that IRWMP can be successful in identifying and accelerate the existing projects that would provide more integrated and regional benefits. Given the amount of time and money that goes into planning, it would be mistake to ignore the role of IRWM in selecting integration "winners" and helping them get further down the road to completion. Making this happen requires first a comparative analysis of the prioritization systems used, and then some type of decision-support from DWR on best practices or possibly some type of standarized ranking system. A lot of the problem stems from the fact that measuring broader ecosystem services besides acre-feet of water is very difficult and has many uncertainties.

Fourth, addressing the interests of disadvantaged communities remains a problem. Bay Area study participants gave the lowest ranking to the ability of IRWM to address DACs, and that sentiment was echoed throughout the conference. This was also apparent in a comparative survey conducted by the "Roundtable of Regions", where there was a variety of concerns mentioned about DACs. To some extent this was even reflected in the lack of ethnic diversity among conference participants themselves. Regardless, more efforts are needed in this area including releasing DWR funding for the DAC pilot projects.

Lastly, the experience reinforced my at least partially self-serving conviction that a systematic comparative analysis is needed along the lines of the Bay Area study. I was very happy to see that people learned something from the paper. But that was only one region and I have ideas on how to improve the study. I would like to analyze as many regions as possible, focusing on strategies for governance, project prioritization, and DAC engagement. The evaluation needs to encompass a wider geographic area, and also capture both high performing and low performing regions. We need to learn from both the successes and failures.

Overall I thought the conference was successful and useful. I also think that IRWM is a project worth continuing because it is really only at the early stages of building collaborative water communities. We still need to keep a close eye on the process to make sure the investment continues to increase in value, and ultimately leads to water management decisions that promote sustainable and adaptive communities.