Come Rain or Shine

Drought Adaptation & Social Learning

July 07, 2021 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 2 Episode 9
Come Rain or Shine
Drought Adaptation & Social Learning
Show Notes Transcript

Taking action to manage drought and adapt to changing conditions can sometimes have unintended impacts on the adaptive capacity of others in the same social and ecological system. Jen Henderson, an assistant professor of geography at Texas Tech University, shares about two instances where social learning took place after actors experienced unanticipated impacts from others’ decisions. Jen is a disaster scholar and interdisciplinary social scientist who studies risk and uncertainty amid decision-making processes in weather and climate extremes. Her recent work highlighted in this episode focuses on two cases of drought decisions made along the Arkansas River Basin in Colorado. Image by David Nisley from Pixabay 

For further reading:

The Colorado Water Plan details many of the water issues faced by resource managers, municipalities, and other sectors in the state--as well as future plans to address issues, including lease-fallow and flows management programs. The Arkansas River Basin Roundtables also detail ongoing efforts by communities to co-manage water.

Devine, B. (2015). Moving Waters: The Legacy of Buy-and-Dry and the Challenge of Lease-Fallowing in Colorado's Arkansas River Basin (Doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder).

Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flows Management Program
#ArkansasRiver: Voluntary Flow Management Program helps rafting industry and Gold Medal fishing
Will the West figure out how to share #water?

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[00:00:00] Sarah LeRoy: Welcome to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub and the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah LeRoy, Science Applications and Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC. 

Emile Elias: And I'm Emile Elias, Director of the Southwest Climate Hub. Here we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities. 

Sarah LeRoy: We believe that sharing some of the most innovative forward thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

Sarah LeRoy: [00:00:39] Today, we are continuing our series focusing on drought in the Southwest. In our previous episodes we focused on the impacts of drought, both physically on the environment and mentally. Taking action to manage drought and adapt to changing conditions can also have impacts albeit unintentional, which reduce the adaptive capacity for others in the same social and ecological system.

Today, we're speaking with Jen Henderson an Assistant Professor of geography at Texas Tech University. She is a disaster scholar and interdisciplinary social scientist who studies risk and uncertainty amid decision-making processes in weather and climate extremes. Her recent work that we will be discussing focuses on two cases of drought decisions made along the Arkansas River Basin in Colorado, where social learning occurred after actors experienced unanticipated impacts from other's decisions.

Jen. Thank you very much for talking with us today. We know that a lot of your work is in the pre-publication phase, and so we appreciate you giving us a little sneak-peak. In your upcoming publications, you and your colleagues state, quote, "Unintended consequences from decisions made in one part of a social ecological system in response to climate hazards can magnify vulnerabilities for others in the same system."

In this publication, you discuss two examples of some unexpected outcomes of drought management. Could you briefly describe each of these examples with a little background on the issues and what ultimately happened? 

Jen Henderson: [00:02:20] First of all. Yes. Thank you so much for having me here today. It's such a pleasure. You all are doing such important work and I'm just thrilled to be part of this.

And I think you really highlight the central kind of important message or at least problem that we were investigating with this work, which is that unintended consequences are really difficult to identify and track, especially in real time. And so, you know, trying to look at these decisions in their kind of context, whether that's historical or contemporary context and be able to trace them to build cases that we can learn from is really important.

So in this, in this particular instance, we, we actually started much more broadly than these two cases by examining, you know, problems of unintended consequences along the Arkansas river basin. And we interviewed about 16 different individuals across different sectors. But what was pretty remarkable is how often these two case studies came up among those individuals as examples of this kind of unintended consequence.

And some of them were negative impacts and some of them had positive impacts that were sort of surprising. So the first that a lot of people along the Arkansas talked about, and this has been written about numerous times by in local newspapers and journals. And some academic scholarship is the case of Crowley County, which is sort of famous or infamous, as you might say, for buy and dry practices in the state.

And that's a term that applies to sort of water sales that originated in the 1980s and nineties, when water speculators came into the area and started buying up these water rights. And over time as individual farmers sold these water rights, it dried up their farms. That's kind of the dry part of buying dry.

And it started to shift the power dynamics too. You had municipalities that were growing because of urbanization and drought needs and drought stress, they needed more and more water. And so you had these municipalities that had the kind of lion's share of the water rights and these farming community then not only did individual farms dry up but over time, the aggregate result was that communities dried up. And so that was kind of the historical context for the first case. And there's a legacy today where people have sort of taken a lesson learned from that kind of context and said, let's not have this continue in the future.

Now there still are as you know, buy and dry practices still exist, but they're developing what are called alternative transfer methods for water. Experimenting with things like lease for fallow, which is what's happening in this particular case where farmers are leasing water to municipalities to keep the water rights with the agricultural community, but trying to meet the needs of growing municipality and urban  areas.

 So that's kind of the first case. And I'll just pause and see if there any questions you all have yet about that case. 

Emile Elias: [00:05:17] So many. So many questions about that and where we're going. And I think we'll get into some of those, but I'm especially interested in that social learning and how that manifests as we move forward. So maybe we can hear about the second case and then get into some of the details. 

Jen Henderson: [00:05:34] Okay, great. Yeah. So the second case that came up in this conversation with multiple interviews and stakeholders was around the upper Arkansas. So the first case takes place in a lower Arkansas with agricultural communities.

The second place is on the upper Arkansas River Basin. And there, there was a sort of a coalition of people who came together around water usage, recreational industry, who in the 1980s was really just getting off the ground. So rafting and canoeing, those sorts of things on the river that started kind of spinning up as a new business in the area and providing some economic development there. And a few years later, though, there were, you know, ebbs and flows and climatology with water. They started to dry up and not have as much water availability for recreation for these uses. Now water rights primarily exists with like municipalities, with agricultural producers, with industry, but this industry didn't have any water rights.

And so they weren't able to control flows on the, on the water. They were sort of at the mercy of the flows that were in place. But they got together with another group, some Trout Unlimited and approached some of the agricultural producers and water managers along the river and said, could we maybe alter flows, not necessarily harm you all?

Cause we want to make sure we preserve your water rights, but allow the flows to change just a bit so that in the summer we have consistent flows so that we can run our business. And it was economic development and economic benefit to everyone. So they formed the, and I'll get this acronym wrong, Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flows Management program in 1990.

And they, it was another experiment, just like these kinds of lease and fallow experiments in Crowley county. But they decided to give it five years. It involved, you know, multiple stakeholders who, both who had water rights and those who didn't. And initially it allowed them to alter these flows. But then what was interesting is in 2002, when we had, you know, Colorado one of the historic droughts and water became almost non-existent in many of the river basins they noticed that the wild brown trout, which are not native to Colorado, did really well with lower flows on the river, that the sort of drought conditions.

But because they already had this this kind of flows management program in place, they were able to take advantage of this in kind of real time, so to speak or near real time and alter the flows to accommodate the, the fish. And so one of the results of this is the gold medal angling that you see along the Arkansas river, that they were able to really support the trout.

And so they got together and altered flows, both kind of compromise the flows for the river for recreation, but then also compromise the flows for the fish. So these two cases together, they, they have different temporalities and different kinds of spatial extents, but they both illustrate social learning which is kind of the theoretical frame that we put around this data to make sense of it.

Emile Elias: [00:08:44] Excellent. Thank you. Thanks for that overview of those case studies and you led right into my next question, which is that in your publication, you described this theory, this psychological and organizational theory of social learning and that this theory or social learning occurred after these unintended consequences happened in each case.

And so I'm hoping just for everyone's education including ours, can you describe social learning what it is and then why it's so important to adaptive capacity? 

Jen Henderson: [00:09:19] Yes, absolutely. So social learning interestingly started with in psychology, as you note with Albert Bandura, who was looking more at sort of interpersonal social learning, like how do we understand and make sense of our world and how do we take lessons from other places incorporated into our behavior, both environmental and social.

So that became kind of the, the genesis of this social learning theory. And as many individual theories do it sort of migrated out of psychology and into land management, climate change and other resource  management contexts, in the nineties and the two thousands. And it was applied there to try to both orchestrate social learning, which is really in that context, when we start talking about resources, sort of learning together to manage together is the phrase that I think most succinctly captures that. And so you learn from one another in order to manage this limited resource together. And so a lot of the literature that we looked at sort of breaks into a couple different ways.

One looks at, you know, how do you generate social learning. How do you create the conditions in which the social learning can occur around a resource? So what kinds of workshops, what kinds of stakeholders do you bring to the table? What kinds of relationships do you build on one of the activities that go into building that relationship like trust, which is really important.

And then also the sites. What, where does social learning occur? Is it really at what scales and what particular contexts and sites does it occur? But one of the things that we noticed is there's not a lot of literature out there about the motivations for social learning that sort of occur organically, where you're not trying to organize a group at the outset to develop social learning, but it just sort of emerges in that context.

So that's where we sort of saw this as really important, is that these were groups that weren't taking about social learning theory. They didn't have sort of these extraneous groups coming in and saying, Hey, let's build trust in this community. It happened in the case of Crowley county over decades, over time.

And then in the case of you know, the flows management program, it happened over a shorter period of time. I mean, still several years, which is what it takes to develop trust and identify people who are important stakeholders in the problem that sort of emerges in those spaces. So I think I answered the first part of that social learning, I guess I would say is really important.

I mean, I think, you know, just from my perspective, I would say social learning is really important because it just describes a particular way of surviving. I mean, we, we can learn firsthand about a lot of different things, but we can't have all of the experiences that can teach us something. Some of those things we've learned through indirect experience or watching other people, it sort of goes back to Bandura's original theory.

And so rather than having to learn the hard way so to speak, we can learn from others when we, when we watch and observe what they're doing, will we hear stories that are similar to our own? In fact, you know, a lot of the pilot programs that exist in Colorado today around these lease and fallow programs originated, or at least the ideas originated and practices originated in California.

So it's not even that it emerges sort of, you know, organic and instantaneously in one group, they're sort of watching other states that are grappling with the similar kinds of issues. So what it helps you do is it helps you shortcut some of the problems that you might face because you're able to learn from other people's experience.

So I think that's one of the big values. And the other one is just being able to, if you have a network of people who are engaged in continual social learning practices or a community of practices, they're often called that are engaged in social learning continuously. You can, you can anticipate sometimes problems that might emerge.

You have a bigger view of, of kind of the resource, because you have multiple people there at different scales and in different contexts and different perspectives. And you can also think about, well, unintended consequences are emerging in this space. We didn't think about what that we can see it emerging, and we can start to intervene before there's sort of catastrophic crisis.

Emile Elias: [00:13:19] That's really interesting. And it makes me think of just the value, the intrinsic value of peer to peer or community to community sharing and learning and listening. And my next question for you really is looking at this direct linkage between social learning and shaping local and state water policy.

And it seems like that there's a real link there. And I wonder if you could you talk about that either in the Crowley county case or, or other cases? 

Jen Henderson: [00:13:51] Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, I think that the, that the links that happen between social learning and these kind of policies or perspectives is really been interesting to see in Colorado.

One of the things beyond the interviews that we did was look at a lot of documents that were generated around water rights and around water policy and water usage in the state. And the state water plan actually references these alternative transfer methods as a potential key, not only, not only to, you know, preserving water rights, which is important and thinking about who's being harmed and which, which particular sectors might be more vulnerable as drought, you know, changes over time and intensifies. But also what are the values that you hold as a society and as a community, do we want to preserve farming as, as a way of life? And so you can see that some of the policies start to connect to, you know, the, the social learning of the group is that we want to. 

The municipal leaders and the agricultural producers are coming together and saying, we value both. We value growth and municipal development, and we value farming. We want to keep both, we don't want one to go away. And then you see the state sort of pick up on this because there's an economic stake in it as well.

There's also this value of farming as a way of life that's kind of historical to the state. So you can see social learning happening then kind of trickling up and trickling down into different communities. And so I think the state water plan is a good example of that. And also just as I said, you know, California sort of set an example for Colorado who, who will Colorado be an example for it in the future? I know Utah right now, for example, is grappling a lot with water sales as they grow, looking at Colorado and social learning across state lines can influence policies that way too. 

Sarah LeRoy: [00:15:40] Thanks, Jen. So I kind of wanted to shift gears just slightly thinking about, you know, we're currently experiencing very extreme heat, you know, sitting here in Tucson, it's 115 degrees outside this whole week, not just today.

And, you know, as our listeners know exceptional drought conditions across a lot of the, the Southwest region. So I'm wondering what your advice is for individuals or communities that are managing these drought extremes and, you know, thinking about that social learning that you've been discussing and the results that you've got from your research.

Jen Henderson: [00:16:18] That's such a great question. I think a couple of things come to mind, you know, it's really difficult. I mean, you can do it as these examples illustrate. You can sort of build social learning in real time. I mean, there are consequences to that where, you know, there might be harm that's done in some aspect of the system that you haven't anticipated or been able to intervene in quickly enough.

But I do think that, you know, having these systems and these networks set up before something happens is ideal. But even as we're moving into this heat and this drought. I think, I think there's something about scale here. That's really important. You know, often individual decision makers feel sort of constraints that they're, they're just trying to manage their own resource, their own livelihood, their own sanity, in a lot of ways.

And so trying to think about who else they can connect with across, you know, their region or their state or their neighborhoods. I mean the agricultural community is already a tight community and they're building relationships with municipalities who else might be not involved in the system that they, that could either benefit themselves, you know, that somebody else might need that kind of network or who else can you think of that you might grow that network to include? Maybe there's some blind spot that you haven't been able to identify, someone to look at. Like recreation was, I think a bit of a blind spot in that particular context with the flows management program. The part of the reason it was a blind spot because it was emergent, it was a new industry. And so where are there, you know, I'm thinking of in, in Colorado, some of the people that I talked to that didn't make it into this paper where some of the marijuana industry and how that's changing agriculture and how you might include, you know, both urban, you know, marijuana producers, but also those who are transforming traditional, agricultural you know, farms into marijuana farms. 

Energy is another group that you know, you tend to think about. So who, who are the different groups that are tied to the resource that you're interested in? How can you reach out to them and start to build relationships and invite them into your, into your meetings in your circles?

Colorado does an excellent job with this, like the Basin Round Tables and lots of different groups and communities. So I think Colorado has a really robust network around water. But you know, there's always people who are voices that are missing. Groups that aren't represented. And so bringing them in helps you get a fuller, more robust, holistic view of that resource and can also mitigate harm that way.

So, so scale, and so scale of individuals versus institutions is also an important one. Where can you turn for resources and maybe build institutional frameworks that don't already exist? The Flows Management program, you know, It was really kind of an informal structure, but it did have a legal framework that they were just going to experiment for five years and see how it went.

And so there were rules put in place and policies created around it to try to ensure everyone's safety or lack of harm from the water transfers and the water changes that were occurring. But they had to create that infrastructure sort of from scratch. It didn't already exist. So, I guess too, looking at other models in other states or other regions, places that have gone through drought before, again I go back to Utah, which was actually my second site of interviews that they just are experiencing population growth in a way that Colorado has for, you know, maybe more than a decade.

They're just now entering in the probably the last half of a decade, that population boom. Could they look to Colorado and see what's happening there as they're experiencing this drought to try to build relationships, to build infrastructure, to build policies and practices that they don't currently have.

Emile Elias: [00:19:44] That's great advice. Yeah. Thank you for sharing those ideas about being inclusive. Including people that you maybe hadn't thought about or issues that you hadn't thought about initially, and possibly building structures to make sure that what you're going to try, or even pilot projects, you know, five-year pilot project to try something new and be creative. But so thank you for sharing these stories.

And I know we discussed you have a publication that's coming out soon. So can you tell us where people can find it and when you anticipate it might be published? 

Jen Henderson: [00:20:18] Absolutely. So it's going to be in the journal of Weather, Climate, and Society, and it was just accepted. So I'm anticipating in the next couple of weeks to a month that it'll appear officially.

We did give permission for early online release, so it could be sooner. And I also just wanted to say, you know, that it was a whole group effort of, of not only the co-authors, but the people who are willing to talk to us. I think Crowley county has a local, very vocal group of people who have been through and lived through these events.

And so their stories are really powerful. And I think that the Waterflows Management program, I mean. So see the benefits of a gold medal sort of fishing industry come in apart from some of these relationships is pretty inspiring. So I just want to acknowledge them. And they are, these participants of course are anonymized, but I just wanted to say that they are really important to this publication as well.

Emile Elias: [00:21:11] Excellent. And you've already, you've led into our final question. Something we often like to ask when we get to talk with folks is what gives them hope for the future about these important topics. So in thinking about your research and what you've shared with us today, what makes you feel particularly hopeful for the future of drought adaptation?

Jen Henderson: [00:21:35] Yeah well I'll say first of all, a group like yours, where we can have conversations truly that move things forward in ways that are not as inaccessible as publications can be. And a place where people can have conversations and share information freely and access it in ways that are, you know, not behind paywalls or library systems.

And that sort of thing I think is really important and also has a real-time feature to it where you can be responsive to what's happening in the drought communities. So that gives me hope. That's not, that's not true for all hazards. There are not these groups around all hazards, which I wish there were.

The other thing I think that I'll just say from these two cases, but I was really struck by is sort of the empathy that people have and build for one another. And their circumstances, even though it might not, you know, benefit them in all the ways that just simply staying siloed benefits some of these actors, but the empathy that you can build and the trust that can be built across groups who would seem to have conflicting at times, conflicts of interest, or at least, you know, worldviews or points of view that might not jive with one another, that they can come together with that empathy and really compromise and do so in kind of conversation with one another work through really hard problems and keep at it I think is really inspiring. So that gives me a lot of hope. 

Emile Elias: [00:22:57] Thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing this research, it's really important work you've done and you're bringing the light and important guideposts for all of us trying to do this work in terms of being inclusive and, and really talking about some of these challenges.

So thanks for joining us. 

Jen Henderson: [00:23:16] Thank you. 

Emile Elias: [00:23:17] I will look forward to seeing what happens in the future now that you're at Texas Tech. 

Jen Henderson: [00:23:22] Yes. 

Emile Elias: [00:23:23] We'll keep in touch. 

Jen Henderson: [00:23:25] That sounds great. Thank you so much, everyone. It's been my pleasure.

Emile Elias: Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub

Sarah LeRoy: and the USGS Southwest CASC. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to rate or review it and subscribe for more great episodes. A special thanks to our production crew, Skye Aney and Reanna Burnett. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers or would like to offer feedback, please reach out to us via our websites.