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Ogmius Newsletter

research highlight


This edition of Ogmius features a Research Highlight by Christine Kirchhoff. Christine recently completed her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment in Resource Policy and Behavior. Christine’s dissertation investigated the supply of climate science by two NOAA RISAs and the use of that information by water managers across five states in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest United States. It was selected as Best Dissertation in the Water Policy and Socioeconomics Category in the 2011 Universities Council on Water Resources Ph.D. Dissertation Award competition.

Christine has an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a master’s in environmental and water resources engineering both from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to enrolling at the University of Michigan in 2004 she was a practicing professional engineer in Austin, Texas. In that capacity Christine was responsible for the design and project management of several multi-million dollar water and wastewater treatment plant projects as well as several distribution systems and water resource planning efforts for municipal clients throughout Texas.

Christine has spent the past year as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Her research with Lisa Dilling is described below.

Christine Kirchhoff

Science Informing Policy? Understanding Drivers and Constraints to Improved Water Management in a Changing Climate
by Christine Kirchhoff and Lisa Dilling

Christine Kirchhoff, Research Associate at the Center, and Lisa Dilling, Assistant Professor, CIRES Fellow and member of the Center, are examining the challenges to improving state water resources management and planning efforts to be more resilient to climate variability and climate change. They focus on U.S. states because of their important role in water resources management, data collection, monitoring and long-term planning. The study is supported by a one-year extension of the NSF-sponsored Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate (SPARC) project.

water management

Water managers have long experienced the challenges of managing water resources in a variable climate. However, climate change has the potential to reshape the experiential landscape by, for example, increasing the intensity and duration of droughts and the frequency of extreme events. They begin with the premise that with heightened uncertainty water resources management must be dynamic and responsive and seek flexible solutions. They hypothesize that a dynamic management regime will have more adaptive capacity to cope with uncertainties in the coupled human-natural system and that to be successful, techno-scientific information must play a prominent role. However, information alone is insufficient. The complexities of the coupled human-natural system and, in particular, the institutional, organizational, and behavioral components of these systems confound efforts not only to obtain more and better information but also to use that information to improve water management.

Their research uses interviews and documentary analysis in five U.S. states to understand the drivers and constraints to improved water resource planning and decision-making. Specifically, they seek to answer the following research questions:

  • What constrains or promotes flexibility and adaptability in water management?
  • How might the connections between information suppliers and information users be strengthened to support more flexible and adaptable water management?

Preliminary results suggest climate variability—namely drought—coupled with population growth drives improvements in water resources planning at the state level to a far greater degree than concern over climate change. Moreover, results suggest uncertainty in the direction and magnitude of climate change can prevent early engagement with the issue, even while alternative actions to improve adaptive capacity are available. Lastly, preliminary analysis identified four important confounding factors that affect the ability of managers to consider alternative courses of action: 1) perception of risk (as distinguished from actual risks); 2) the usability and degree of incorporation of techno-scientific information; 3) the difficulty of discussing climate issues in a charged political landscape; and 4) competing or unclear authority structures surrounding water issues at the state and local level.

Additional data collection and analysis may alter this emerging picture of the drivers and constraints to more flexible and adaptive water resources management at the state level. Stay tuned!

Christine Kirchhoff

Lisa Dilling