Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Studying the water wars: Adaptive governance in the Klamath

Klamath River

What’s the most complex system a scientist can study? The inky, inaccessible abyss of deep-sea hydrothermal vents? The swirling, invisible currents of the Earth’s atmosphere?

Perhaps neither approaches the complexity and nuance of human social systems, especially when they are linked to equally intricate ecological systems. Hannah Gosnell, associate professor of geography at Oregon State, braves the intricacies of these “social-ecological systems,” (coupled systems of nature and people), studying human dimensions of global environmental issues, particularly the approaches people use to address them. One of her recent research priorities is examining the emergence and use of “adaptive governance” to address issues ranging from climate change to land use planning to water resource disputes.

Adaptive governance fosters the emergence of collective problem-solving and innovative institutions in pursuit of sustainable, just outcomes for social-ecological systems, like fair water use for a variety of stakeholders. The “adaptive” part of adaptive governance refers to the fact that rules, structures, and policies change in response to new information.

Gosnell explains, “If you want a system to be resilient, to withstand disturbance, governance needs to be flexible while still providing stability. The people involved need to be attentive to ecological change, and then make the necessary changes to laws, policies, and management. But when you don’t have good social relationships and trust, it’s often safer to just stick to existing law, which can be rigid and outdated, or litigate, which can be expensive, time-consuming, and ineffective for achieving better outcomes.”

Gosnell and her recent Ph.D. student, Brian Chaffin (now an assistant professor at University of Montana), were interested in whether and how a system of adaptive governance emerged in the wake of the Klamath Basin water wars during the critical years of 2001-2010. These years culminated in the completion of a negotiated agreement among all stakeholders for a new, more holistic way to manage the system, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA).

“A big source of the conflict was that the federal government was making all the decisions,” Gosnell says. Other stakeholders – farmers, tribes, ranchers, environmentalists – came to understand that they needed to undertake problem-solving themselves, putting aside distrust and resentment and looking for common ground.

Chaffin and Gosnell looked for the hallmarks of emerging adaptive governance, and found them. Over time, governance in the Klamath became less hierarchical and included multiple overlapping centers of decision-making. Formerly marginalized groups such as the Klamath Tribes gained an important seat at the table. New approaches included more informal meetings of working groups that allowed social relationships to burgeon, implementation of small-scale collaborative restoration projects, and improved communication among stakeholders.

“A core group of key stakeholders came together and started to ask, ‘how can we share scarce water resources more effectively? Why don’t we decide rather than waiting for the next law suit and letting a judge decide?’” Gosnell says.

Common to all of Gosnell’s research is the search for solutions at the “radical center” of an issue, that sweet spot between two possibly extreme and always dearly held perspectives.

“What kind of institutions, leadership, and geographic conditions need to coalesce in order for disparate groups to change the way they interact and adopt a collaborative approach to problem solving? How people get to that place, how they leave their entrenched positions for a greater good, that’s the question I often come back to.”

While the KBRA was not authorized by Congress and expired in 2016, the Klamath story is far from over. Gosnell will continue to follow it with great interest, identifying barriers to collaborative conservation and paths to the radical center in this most complex system.


See more Feature Stories