Are U.S. States Prepared to Manage Water in a Changing Climate?

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Assistant Professor Christine Kirchhoff in civil and environmental engineering.

This article, focused on the research of Assistant Professor Christine Kirchhoff in civil and environmental engineering, was originally published on the Earth & Space Science News Website.

By Terri Cook

Growing economies, booming populations, and a changing climate can all thwart effective water resource management. Recent research suggests that more adaptive and resilient governance arrangements can improve water management—especially in changing and uncertain conditions—but these solutions, largely derived from work at international and watershed scales, have not yet been empirically tested. In the United States, the governance arrangements of individual states have rarely been studied, despite the crucial role that states play in governing water resources.

To address this gap, Kirchhoff and Dilling use documentary evidence and interviews to compare the water allocation and planning practices observed in five U.S. states—Maryland, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—to a set of characteristics of resilient water governance they identified during a literature review. The results show that the states in this study vary widely in their support for and implementation of these characteristics.

Texas, Georgia, and Florida, for example, support the collection of data and the generation of practical tools, such as groundwater models, that provide state water managers with the knowledge they need to make effective management decisions and informed water plans. Illinois, by contrast, offers much more limited statewide support, an approach that leads to more crisis-driven management, according to the researchers.

To enable adaptive and resilient water management, state water managers must be willing and able to make changes, like adjustments in water allocations. According to the study results, the managers in Florida, Maryland, and Georgia all have the ability to make such changes, but only those in Maryland showed a readiness to actually do so. The data show that state water managers are not always willing to enforce rules when taking action is inconsistent with other state priorities, such as economic development—or when it could expose the agency to political attacks.

Despite the importance of incorporating climate change data into strategic long-term water planning, the results of this study show that managers in these states have not done so because of questions about the data’s reliability and the politics around this issue. Instead, the states rely on historical climate data and ongoing planning to manage the uncertainties of future climate change. The authors conclude that this lack of a statewide strategy largely means local communities, large and small, must fend for themselves to understand and respond to climate change–related risks to their local water supplies; communities unable to fend for themselves may be at increasing risk with respect to their water resources. (Water Resources Research, doi:10.1002/2015WR018431, 2016)

Citation: Cook, T. (2016), Are U.S. states prepared to manage water in a changing climate?, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO050613. Published on 18 April 2016.


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