Resilience and Water Governance

Authors: 
Cosens, B. - Presenter, University of Idaho

The highly developed water basins of North America are complex social-ecological systems composed of interrelated engineered and ecosystem services. Development has led to enormous human benefits and at the same time has impaired ecosystem services and reduced system sustainability. Research into restoration of ecosystem services and technology that is compatible with a functioning ecological system holds considerable promise for improving sustainability of water basins. But that research takes place in the face of considerable uncertainty resulting from drivers such as climate change, human population growth, changing demand, and changing values. In addition, new technology must be superimposed on existing development relied on by powerful interests. Restoration of river complexity and implementation of new technologies requires parallel changes in governance that allows adaptation in the face of change and decisions on tradeoffs among competing goals. Using resilience (i.e. a measure of the amount of perturbation a social-ecological system can withstand while maintaining its structure and functions) as a bridging concept between ecology and governance, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, social scientists and legal scholars have begun work on the development of models for adaptive governance in the context of North American water basins. Just as new technology must be implemented in the context of highly developed rivers, changes to governance must be considered in the context of existing water management which is fragmented and hierarchical. The Resilience and Law project looks at approaches to adaptive governance to facilitate decision making in the face of uncertainty and perceived as legitimate and compatible with economic stability.

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