DELTA LEAD SCIENTIST: A typology of drought decision making

At the October meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, during the Lead Scientist report, Dr. Laurel Larsen spotlighted an article on decision-making during drought, noted two upcoming science workshops, and gave an update on the ongoing activities of the Delta Science Program.

Dr. Larsen began by noting that the recent wet weather has been welcome, but it will take much more rain to replenish parched soils so that subsequent storms can more directly contribute to reservoirs.  So our attention shouldn’t waver from the specter of long-term drought and the need to fundamentally alter how we plan for its occurrence.

Drought and drought-related management decisions have tremendous impacts on people. Unfortunately, those impacts may be inequitable, a fact echoed by the public comments at Delta Stewardship Council and State Water Board meetings.  Accordingly, many public calls have been issued to understand drought decision-making processes and their implications.

In the Delta, these actions fall under Section One of the 2017-21 Science Action Agenda, which focuses on assessing the human dimensions of natural resources management decisions. And likewise, chapter two of the Delta science plan focuses on identifying mechanisms and tools to support regular and effective interactions among decision-makers, scientists, and stakeholders to provide a holistic understanding of the shared needs within the Delta system.

In the article, A typology of drought decision making: Synthesizing across cases to understand drought preparedness and response actions , the study’s authors developed a process for extracting those lessons learned. They created a ‘drought decision-making typology based on an analysis of many droughts in the West.  Dr. Larsen explained that a typology is a classification of variables that helps investigators break down the complexity of the diverse contexts in which drought decision-making is conducted and discreetly think about those elements.  It also allows researchers to standardize the variables considered when looking across different droughts in different places and at different times.

Figure 2 from Cravens, A. E., Henderson, J., Friedman, J., Burkardt, N., Cooper, A. E., Haigh, T., Hayes, M., McEvoy, J., Paladino, S., Wilke, A. K., & Wilmer, H.  (2021, July 31). A typology of drought decision making: Synthesizing across cases to understand drought preparedness and response actions. Weather and Climate Extremes. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from

In the paper, Amanda Cravens from the US Geological Survey and co-authors developed their typology as a synthesis based on a social science analysis of 10 different droughts that impacted Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.  Dr. Larsen acknowledged that while California is not in there, the droughts in the study all occurred in the West.

The typology consists of four defining elements (or questions) that distinguish drought decision making processes:

  • How is the drought problem framed?
  • Who makes decisions about drought?
  • What are the decisions or actions taken in response to drought?
  • What are the dynamic interactions among actors, decisions, and/or problem framings?

On the chart, aspects of the problem to consider are listed under each of the questions. For example, under the question about who makes decisions about drought, the authors considered actors to include groups with formal decision-making authority as well as groups with informal authority, such as non-governmental organizations, watershed groups, environmental advocacy groups, and fishing groups.

Each of these four areas has this set of dimensions, which are the smaller boxes under the main boxes, and each of those dimensions has a set of guiding questions that are elaborated on in the paper,” said Dr. Larsen.  “Just as an example, under discretion, which is the second blue box under item three, the guiding question is, how much scope for decision making and/or acting does a particular actor possess?

The author’s claim that by thinking about drought decision making via this typology, opportunities and barriers for action can be identified across a diverse set of actors,” she continued.  “A few other ways in which this tool may be used particularly by entities such as the Delta Science Program would be to help funders and researchers identify what some of the salient questions and knowledge gaps are, and also to guide workshop organizers in the planning process for drought focused workshops. In general, it’s a new addition to what is a growing toolbox for managing drought conditions that deals specifically with the social science need to understand how these decision-making processes are undertaken in a particular system.”

A typology of drought decision making: Synthesizing across cases to understand drought preparedness and response actions

Amanda E. Cravens, et al.

Drought is an inescapable reality in many regions, including much of the western United States. With climate change, droughts are predicted to intensify and occur more frequently, making the imperative for drought management even greater. Many diverse actors including private landowners, business owners, scientists, non- governmental organizations (NGOs), and managers and policymakers within tribal, local, state, and federal government agencies play multiple, often overlapping roles in preparing for and responding to drought.

Managing water is, of course, one of the most important roles that humans play in both mitigating and responding to droughts; but, focusing only on water managers or water management fails to capture key elements related to the broader category of drought management. The respective roles played by those managing drought (as distinct from water managers), the interactions among them, and the consequences in particular contexts, are not well understood.

Our team synthesized insights from 10 in-depth case studies to understand key facets of decision making about drought preparedness and response. We present a typology with four elements that collectively describe how decisions about drought preparedness and response are made (context and objective for a decision; actors responsible; choice being made or action taken; and how decisions interact with and influence other decisions). The typology provides a framework for system-level understanding of how and by whom complex decisions about drought management are made. Greater system-level understanding helps decision makers, program and research funders, and scientists to identify constraints to and opportunities for action, to learn from the past, and to integrate ecological impacts, thereby facilitating social learning among diverse participants in drought preparedness and response.

Access the article here:  A typology of drought decision making: Synthesizing across cases to understand drought preparedness and response actions


Upcoming workshop on salinity management actions

The salinity barrier installed across the West False River this past summer is one tool in a toolbox of proposed strategies for managing salinity within the Delta during drought conditions.  Other strategies being considered by various agencies and interagency groups include additional salinity barriers in the North Delta, the use of operable barriers, and the use of green engineering design, such as the restoration alternative developed during the Franks Track Futures visioning process, that would block salinity intrusion, while also achieving new recreational and ecological objectives.

What our community has not been able to do holistically when faced with emergency conditions like those of the present drought is to systematically and collaboratively evaluate multiple alternatives and how they perform across a suite of climate or drought scenarios,”  said Dr. Larsen.  “So this is a process that the Delta Science Program is hoping to catalyze through a workshop or series of workshops that will be held in 2022.”

The planning committee includes representatives from over ten institutions and spans a range of disciplines from engineering to ecology to social science. The Committee anticipates that participants will identify the range of alternative salinity management strategies that are being or should be considered and the models, tools, and metrics to evaluate alternative scenarios.

In particular, participants will identify key studies or metrics that need to be invoked to evaluate the impacts of salinity management strategies on the Delta’s human communities, which has not been done to a great extent yet. The Delta science program will then commission a set of initial six scenarios to be explored via modeling. Workshop participants will reconvene to collaboratively evaluate the scenarios and extract insight that should be applied to a larger-scale collaborative process.

The outcome that we plan for this workshop or set of workshops is a roadmap for doing this definition of scenarios, modeling, and evaluation of models in a fully collaborative manner,” Dr. Larsen said.  “This type of forward-thinking planning for drought is something that DPIIC has been discussing in its past two meetings and is broadly acknowledged as something that the community needs to do. So we are hopeful that the process that the workshop catalyzes will have broad buy-in from both DPIIC member agencies and those interest groups who are not typically at the table.”

Adapting restoration for a changing climate symposium

Also, in early 2022, the Delta Science Program is convening a symposium on adapting restoration for a changing climate scheduled for February 2-3.  The symposium was inspired by the Delta Adapts study and the need to support Delta Plan covered actions and the requirement of taking climate change into consideration in project planning.  It is being planned in coordination with nine other partners.

The symposium will include presentations and panel discussions on restoration and management across time in a changing climate that integrates across the whole estuary and its watershed. Sessions will highlight particular restoration projects that incorporate climate change into their planning and implementation. They’ll also discuss how to cultivate successful partnerships in those efforts and envision future permitting and planning processes that support climate-adaptive restoration.

Dr. Larsen noted that this symposium is also quite relevant to DPIIC’s spotlight on nature-based solutions for adapting to climate change and some recent discussions on cutting the green tape. The symposium will be open to the public, and registration will be available soon.


Environmental justice brown bag series:  On Wednesday, October 20, Dr. Jill Harrison of the University of Colorado Boulder presented on environmental justice reforms in government. Dr. Larsen said the discussion of barriers to implementing environmental justice reforms ‘particularly riveting and a little disturbing’ and encouraged folks to watch the webinar recording.  Another brown bag in the series was held on November 3 and focused on indigenous justice.  The final webinar on climate justice will be held on December 8; you can register here.  ( ) Previous webinars are available here ( )

Delta Lead Scientist Ask Me Anything series: The September and November sessions were a two-art series that focused on fellowship opportunities within the Council.  The September 27 session included Council Sea Grant state fellows Dr. Emily Reisner and Jennica Moffitt, who discussed the California Sea Grant State Policy Fellows program.  The November session featured Dr. Denise Colombano, a two-time Delta Science Fellow who recently started a post-doctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. The Delta Science fellowship is available to students at the masters through the post-doctoral level; a call for Delta Science Fellows is planned for early 2022.  All of the sessions are available to view in archival form.

Science Action Agenda:  The 2022-26 Science Action Agenda will soon be released for public comment.  The draft is currently in executive-level review by the Council. The document is collaboratively produced by the Delta science community that prioritizes and guides funding investments over the 4-5 year time horizon.  The draft science Action Agenda consists of 25 science actions identified from a public workshop and a subsequent review. This list of 25 was whittled down from a list of 178 draft science actions proposed at the workshop; those participants had a chance to review and weigh in on the finalized list of 25 as well as other close finalists, before the draft was prepared for public review.

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