California Water Crisis: Solutions to wicked problems at massive scales

Hanakoa Falls by matsographyMWH Facilitator Lisa Buetler discusses how the California Water Plan is approaching California's ‘wicked' water problems

California's water system's is dependent upon and inextricably intertwined with the variable hydrology, the environment, and the water infrastructure we have built, overlaid with our social values, the state's economic vitality, and the legal institutions we have developed to deal with all of it. This multifaceted complexity is why California's water issues have often been described as ‘wicked problems' that have proven themselves difficult to resolve.

In this presentation given at a University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center conference earlier this year, Lisa Buetler, Public Affairs Specialist for MWH Global, talks about how the California Water Plan is attempting to meet the challenge of dealing with California's ‘wicked problems'.

I’m just going to start off by saying ‘wicked’,” began Lisa Buetler, Public Affairs Specialist for MWH Global.  “Wicked problems, and that is what we are working on.  In this case I‘ve been asked to briefly cover the idea of a solution to a wicked problem at a massive scale in California where we are having a water crisis.

Buetler slides_Page_03California is in the fifth year of a drought, and in addition, California has historic problems, such as subsidence.  “The picture on the left is a very famous picture of subsidence; so if you’ll notice, this was taken awhile back , it’s worse now, but look at where the ground was in 1925, this was in California’s Central Valley.  This is a 1977 picture.  It’s a pretty extraordinary, and this is a trend that is continuing, and it’s strongly impacting our infrastructure. We’re starting to see our water canals which are our major conveyance of water to Southern California starting to crack and be impacted by the subsidence.  We’re also noticing that this is going to have big impacts on our flood control structures.  We have a lot of flood levees, so very, really dangerous situation with subsidence.

And then there are the water wars.  “One of the things that’s gone on from the beginning in California is the idea that there is water but it’s just not where I want it, so there’s been a whole historic process of taking water from one place and taking to another,” she said.  “The place where it’s coming from has not always been happy about that, and that’s led to the idea of the California water wars.  That is such a common phrase, there’s a Wikipedia page just on that topic.”

Buetler slides_Page_04She presented a list of the water problems facing the state drawn from the 2013 California Water Action Plan.  “This is the kind of crisis that we’re seeing right now in California,” she said.  “Drought supplies and unreliability, that is really the issue there. It has to do with our flood risk; this is coming from climate change, it’s flashy; we actually have water, but it comes when we’re not ready for it.  We have the impacts of the groundwater depletion and subsidence, and degraded water quality, lots of reasons going on for that.  We have declining environmental conditions; California has the largest number of endangered species, but also the largest number of species represented.  And finally aging infrastructure; nearly all of our infrastructure in California is past life cycle.  These are major, major crisis issues.”

The California Water Plan comes together to start building responses to that thinking about a different way of doing things,” Ms. Buetler said.  “But interestingly enough, when we think about intractable, wicked problems, we are thinking about something else.  So what is the wicked problem?  Paul Massera, manager for the California Water Plan, said ‘There is no shortage of water, water plans, or even funding so much as there is a consensus on how to move forward.’”

So for each and every one of those problems we just looked at, in fact, the wicked problem is that we have to figure out how to work together to solve the combination of problems,” she continued.  “There isn’t a singular problem.  We have some really good water managers; any single one of those problems probably could be tackled; it’s the combination of the tradeoffs that we have to do it that makes it a wicked problem.”

The theory of wicked problems

Wicked problems have a particular definition:

  • Incomplete or contradictory knowledge
  • A number of people and opinions involved
  • A large economic burden to resolve it,
  • The interconnected nature of the problem with other problems so we can’t intervene at any single problem without impacting something else.

Examples of wicked problems are poverty, sustainability, equality, health and wellness, and water, Ms. Buetler said, noting that she added water to the definition; it doesn’t show up in the original theory.

So what happens to wicked problems?” she said.  “They get offloaded to policy makers.  Are policy makers water managers? No.  So right there we’ve got a huge disconnect.  A lot of times from a policy perspective, they are considered too cumbersome to manage, so they plague each and every one of us.  Almost everyone has an opinion about them.”

Ms. Buelter pointed out that wicked problems can’t be solved; they only be mitigated.  “What it takes to do mitigation is empathy and actual relational kinds of things that up until now water managers may or may not have viewed as particularly important.  They require deductive reasoning, but that’s not the normal reasoning we use.  Finally they require rapid prototyping, and what that’s referring to is some of the adaptive management quick turnaround types of things that we’re responding to the system inputs.”

Buetler slides_Page_11Horst Rittel wrote the base theory on wicked problems back in 1973.  He found:

Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.  “You might talk about poverty, but where it is and how it is makes it different.

It’s hard or impossible to claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another.  “This is wholly unsatisfying in a political system; and that is unacceptable, yet by definition, that is what it is.  So part of what we have to do is change our conversation as water managers to help reframe what it is that we’re talking about.

Solution to wicked problems can only be good or bad, not true or false.  “Because what we’re talking about is the outcome of the response, and that has a qualitative not an absolute nature to it.”

There’s no template to follow; although history may provide a guide.  Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.

There’s always more than one explanation for the problem. “When we think about working with stakeholders in all of the sectors, there’s always more than one explanation and they are all correct.  So we have to shift our thinking from the idea that there is a correct answer.  It’s a huge leap; it’s ‘and’ and ‘both’, not an ‘either-or’.  Usually in many cases, all of these things are true.”

Every wicked problem is a symptom of another.  “This is because of the way that they are intertwined.  There is no mitigation strategy that has the definitive scientific test, and again wholly unacceptable.”

No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test.  “Humans invented wicked problems.  Our science is designed to address natural phenomena.”

Offering a solution to a wicked problem frequently is a one shot design effort.  “When we come in with a major intervention, this whole concept of intervention is an important one.  Any time that we’re working in a system and we in any way touch it, we are intervening in the system, so it is a one-shot design effort.  We are fundamentally changing the system the moment we touch it.  That’s true even for me as a collaborative person, as a person working in the facilitation space, the minute I start a conversation it’s actually changed what’s going to happen.  So we have to understand walking into the process.  Here are significant intervention changes the system.

Every wicked problem is unique, and the people who are doing this need to be responsible.  “There are two parts to that.  The first one is that there needs to be enough space to appropriately manage it, but also, we need to have accountability in the process.”

Not all hard to solve problems are wicked ones; they are just the ones with an indeterminate scope and scale,” said Ms. Buetler.  “So what do you think? Does California water planning hit the wicked problem space?  Sure.”

How does the theory of wicked problems apply to thinking about solving water problems?

California is taking this on through the California Water Plan.  “One of the ways that we’re taking this on is that we can have significant impact on both infrastructure and governance; if we go back to the definition of the wicked problem, we can understand that a lot of this has to do with the way we’re building out and working with our system, but also in the way that we make decisions about it, because a lot of these conflicts are coming from competing interests.”

Lisa Buetler Water WiredThe state can also play a central role in mitigating the problems.  “For example, we can establish new cultural norms.  In California, one of our big cultural norms is green lawns.  And through about two years worth of work, that’s really changed.  We’re really beginning to notice though it’s not true everywhere, but in huge parts of California now, we have neighbors going out and giving people the stink eye if they have a green lawn, so we have some big fundamental shifts in that.”

We need to communicate that mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise.  “It’s really important for us to shift to a mitigation framework rather than a solution framework,” she said.  “One of the ways we’ve always sold our water bonds is ‘give me this money, I’ll go fix it, and then all will be well.’ Now we know we’ve got to change that, we’ve got to communicate that this is a mitigation process, it’s one that’s going to take time, and one and done will not work anymore.”

Ms. Buetler than outlined the California Water Plan Approach:

With the California Water Plan, we’ve understood that a wicked problem requires demands interdisciplinary collaboration and perseverance, Ms. Buelter said.  “That means different people need to be in the room.  We’re not just talking about the different scientific disciplines, but when we talk about cultural change, health, water quality, and things like that, we need different people helping us with these conversations.  We need different people that can help us understand the politics, bringing the technology into the space.  Also we need to bring people in who are not just content based but also place-based.  Where we live in California really matters.  California is not one state; it’s about ten.”

We need new kinds of reasoning, she pointed out.  “One of the things we’ve been really good at in the water world is we’re really good at deductive reasoning, like math; math is fabulous, so we’re good at that.  We’re actually pretty good about inductive reasoning, taking the specific and moving it to the general.  But here we need a new kind of reasoning; we need to be willing to manage to 80%, manage to the probability, not the predictability.  We need to be able to work with an incomplete set of information and move towards the likeliest possible explanation, and we have to understand that we are often working with incomplete information.”

We really need to understand systems theory. “Systems produce what they are designed to produce, so when we are seeing negative outcomes, a couple of things could be going on.  One of them is in California I think we’re typically not managing one system but we’re acting as if we are.  We’re actually managing multiple systems, so when we do system intervention, a lot of times when we’re tweaking the system, we’re actually impacting a different system.

We need to change the way we think about problem solving.  “We’ve all been taught to be a problem solver, so what that does is it creates solution proposing, and solution proposing inherently creates conflict.  Instead we have to move the conversation to one of the desired state, and a desired state that is balancing and doing tradeoffs between the multiple needs and interests.”

We also need to know and understand people. It is irrational to me but people often do not act in their own self interest, and if we approached these issues thinking that people act in their own self-interest, we are wrong and we will use the wrong logic to get it done.  The reason I think that it happens is a lot of times people are saying what will create the least pain for me immediately, but often that’s not in their long-term self interest, so we have to create a different conversation.”

We need to change the questions we are asking.  “We need to manage uncertainty, and that’s what we’re shifting to.  We’re not managing certainty anymore, we’re not solution proposing anymore, so we need to work from this other space.  We need to create resilience in our systems so we can be adaptive when new information comes in, and we need to construct plans that are driving to a future state, the one that gives us the best options.  The California water plan is a strategic plan.”

We need to work collaboratively.  “A lot of people were really afraid of being really collaborative and bringing a lot of people into the mix.  We don’t need to be afraid of it; we just need better group tools to do that.  Then we need to understand that there are a lot of successes that we can look to working collaboratively that we can keep replicating.”

What is the role of the state?

How will we get it done?  In California, the vast majority of infrastructure is done locally.  The local utilities are the one that every day are figuring out how to get water to people.  It’s not being done at the state level, but what we can do at the state level is we can create a structure, we can extend changes to governance, and we can provide funding to incent cross-regional activities so that we can act at a different or bigger scale rather than people only having to work in their own self-focused area, that’s where we have multiple disciplines.  So that state can do that.  The state can change that game.”

The state also has a huge role as holding the space for anxiety.  “As we’re shifting to these conversations of uncertainty, as we’re shifting to conversations about cultural change, that needs to happen at the state level, that can’t really be done at the local level, so that’s the important thing we can bring to the space.”

That’s wicked problems, and that’s how we’re trying to take them on in California.”

Thank you.”

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