AWRA Water Blog

For IWRM to Succeed, it Must be Embraced as a Social and Political Process


by John Tracy, AWRA President

There is a quote that was made by President Woodrow Wilson many years ago that I feel embodies much of what we need to understand about the planning and management of our country’s natural resources.  I think this quote is particularly relevant to the discussion surrounding Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), and one that we should keep in mind as we try to further define IWRM as a concept and process.

“What I fear, therefore, is a government of experts. God forbid that in a democratic country we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be scientifically taken care of by a small group of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job? Because if we don’t understand the job, then we are not a free people. We ought to resign our free institutions and go to school to somebody and find out what it is we are about.” -Woodrow Wilson

AWRA IWRM Case Studies Report
In recent years AWRA has spent a significant amount of time and energy forwarding the discussion of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), attempting to define what it is, and how it can be implemented in water resource planning and management efforts.  This has led to AWRA sponsoring two specialty conferences, creating a new IWRM technical working group, and the development of an IWRM Case Studies Report and subsequent IWRM Webinar Series based on the case studies within the report.

AWRA IWRM ReportThe IWRM Case Studies report provides several examples of the development of IWRM plans, and provides a summary of the lessons learned based on the experiences and outcomes of these efforts.  Several key elements were identified in the Case Studies report as being critical to effectively forwarding IWRM strategies, these being the need to focus on: Sustainability; Adaptive Management; Collaboration and Funding.

Even though these efforts have helped advance the use of IWRM concepts, it is clear that there is much more discussion needed to understand how to embrace IWRM, in addition to making sure that these concepts are effectively used to aid water management and planning efforts across the United States.

The Yakima IWRM Plan
One of the case studies that was included as part of the AWRA IWRM Case Studies that could provide a demonstration of how difficult it may be to move an IWRM effort from planning to implementation, and prove how important these overall themes  are in successfully implementing an IWRM plan, is the Yakima IWRM Plan, which was recognized by receiving AWRA’s first IWRM Award in 2012 at our annual conference in Jacksonville, FL.

I am guessing that the majority of the AWRA readership is not familiar with the Yakima River basin, nor the efforts that have been recently made to advance a water plan that would address many of the issues the basin faces. Briefly, the Yakima River basin is located on the eastern drainage of the northern Cascade mountain range in the state of Washington. In many respects, the Yakima River basin is a microcosm of water management issues in the western United States. The management of the Yakima River basin occurs through a mixture of private, local, state and federal infrastructure and decision making processes, which for the most part were developed in an incremental manner over the last century.

Over the years, conflicts have arisen between the beneficiaries of the hydro-services provided through management of the river basin (water supply, recreation, hydropower, fisheries, etc.) with these conflicts being exacerbated by population growth in the basin, and periods of drought.  To help address the significant management challenges in the basin, a collaborative effort was initiated in 2009 to bring the diverse interests in the basin together to attempt to identify a path forward.  This eventually led to the development of the Yakima IWRM Plan.

A summary of the Yakima IWRM Plan can be found in the AWRA IWRM Case Studies report, and more detailed discussions on the Yakima River basin and the IWRM Plan can be found in the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology.  In 2012 the Yakima IWRM Plan was essentially completed through the issuance of a joint Programmatic EIS by WA DOE and Reclamation, and the development of the Yakima IWRM Plan Implementation Framework.

Recent Dust Up Around the Plan
Recently, however, there has been a bit of a dust up in the local and regional press regarding the plan, related to an economic study prepared and released by the Washington Water Resources Research Center (WWRRC) at Washington State University.  The Washington State Legislature directed the WWRRC “to prepare separate benefit-cost [B-C] analyses for each of the projects proposed in the 2012 Yakima River basin water resource management plan [IP].

The analyses in this particular study indicate that several of the elements of the overall IWRM plan would not be considered cost effective, if undertaken as single project elements. Through discussions primarily in the local and regional press, the WWRRC study appears to be being used to contradict and undermine the analysis and findings of the Yakima IWRM Planning documents, even though the study clearly points out that the economic feasibility analyses approach in the WWRRC report uses significantly different assumptions than the economic analyses performed in the IWRM Planning documents.

How WWRRC Study and Yakima Plan Differ
Since the WWRRC and the Yakima IWRM studies are underlain by entirely different principles and assumptions, it is not terribly surprising that they arrive at different findings.  This situation would be akin to asking two hydrologists to predict future flows in a river, but telling one hydrologist to assume there is no interaction with the groundwater in the region (incremental analysis), and telling the other hydrologist to assume that the river is connected to the regional aquifers (integrated analysis). The studies would most likely arrive at significantly different predictions of future river flows, even though both studies got the math right.

From a technical point of view, to make use of studies whose results provide contradictory findings requires an understanding of the principles and assumptions in each of the studies, and whether these principles and assumptions properly inform decision making processes. Thus, the technical processes of an IWRM plan would suggest the appropriate manner in which contradictory studies and findings should be assessed is through scientific advisory or review bodies, not the popular press.

Trial by Media
However, what appears to be happening is that much of the discussion regarding the economic feasibility of the Yakima IWRM is taking place in the local press, with arguments and cited studies being aimed at swaying public opinion, rather than targeted at providing useful technical information to guide decision making by the agencies responsible for implementing the Yakima IWRM plan.

Overall, this is not a surprising development, since ultimately the decision making bodies that will determine whether this plan moves forward are the legislative bodies (which are representatives of the people) that must appropriate funds to allow the IWRM plan to be implemented. Thus, in this situation it appears that technical studies that are vetted through public discussion will exert a significant amount of influence over governmental decision making bodies as compared to those that are vetted within the scientific and technical community.

What Now?
The current discussion regarding the Yakima IWRM plan highlights the need to go beyond focusing on the development of technical processes to implement IWRM Plans, and enhance our focus on two of the key elements identified in the AWRA IWRM Case Studies report, these being: Collaboration, by viewing collaboration as a broader based program of social engagement of both the direct project beneficiaries and the public at large, with the goal being to create informed constituencies; and Funding, by understanding the necessity to ensure that requests for appropriations meet all of the rules and requirements that exist for the cognizant governmental entities, and that these governmental bodies are answerable to their constituencies.

For IWRM to succeed as a legitimate and useful approach for water resources planning and management in the future,  as much time and effort that is spent on creating the technical components of an IWRM plan must be spent in addressing the political and social elements, which will determine whether an IWRM plan will eventually be implemented.

AWRA member John Tracy is AWRA president and Director of the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Idaho in Boise. Email:

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