Water for the Seasons was a five-year collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate program that aimed to assess the resiliency of snow-fed river systems to climate-induced water supply variability. The project utilized the Truckee-Carson River System in eastern California and northwestern Nevada as a case study to examine the climate resilience of snow-fed river systems comprised of diverse and competing water management interests where prior appropriation doctrine regulates water use under assumptions of climate stationarity. The project featured a collaborative modeling research design that served as the vehicle for systematic and iterative interactions among an interdisciplinary research team (herein, research team) and key local stakeholders (herein, stakeholders) who represented urban, agricultural, environmental and regulatory interests from river system headwaters to terminus. The research team comprised extension research faculty with expertise in hydrologic sciences, resource economics, and collaborative research methods, and modelers with expertise in surface and groundwater hydrology, climatology, and econometrics. More than 124 structured researcher-stakeholder interactions occurred throughout the life of the 5-year project that co-produced climate science information with the goal of facilitating and supporting local climate adaptation. That is, the research team and stakeholders, selected through a stakeholder analysis, interacted through project introductory sessions, face-to-face and phone interviews, focus groups, and workshops to:
- characterize baseline water management challenges;
- identify local adaptation strategies, implementation barriers and climate science information needs;
- specify climate scenarios that test river system resiliency;
- validate hydrologic and operations model simulations tailored to the river system; and
- validate the results of an empirical analysis of the economic performance of prior appropriation doctrine in the case study area.
Co-produced climate science information was then disseminated through a variety of products and services including:
- the analysis of qualitative and quantitative data collected from five years of stakeholder researcher interactions that identified viable adaptation strategies, implementation barriers and related climate information needs;
- climate “stress-test” scenarios that were informed through stakeholder narratives and guided by climate scientists’ expertise;
- hydrologic and river operations model simulation results that assessed the effects of these climate scenarios on water availability to meet diverse and competing water demands across the river system; and
- econometric models that assessed the performance over time of prior appropriation doctrine in reallocating water from lower-valued to higher-valued uses.
Here, we present formative and summative evaluation data collected to measure the extent to which project processes and outcomes met stakeholders’ climate science information needs. Formative evaluation, conducted over the course of the project to guide improvements, assessed stakeholders’ perceptions regarding the effectiveness of the collaborative research processes. In year four, a summative evaluation gauged the project’s overall performance in achieving its intended outcomes. Reflecting upon these combined evaluation data provided additional insights into project features that worked well and those which might have stood improvement. Evaluation results are depicted through five key outcomes. First, the project facilitated and supported local climate adaptation through the development of plausible climate scenarios to explore hydrologic and operational implications. Stakeholders cited the relevancy of research activities which included reassessing current and future water management decisions, watershed planning, agricultural water use and irrigation management, and infrastructure improvements to overcome identified water supply challenges.
Second, the project identified and consistently engaged stakeholders in collaborative research and facilitated social learning. Stakeholders applauded the research team for incorporating diverse local perspectives surrounding water uses, adapting the process to meet emergent climate information needs, and inviting stakeholders’ staff and constituents to participate in the research, resulting in climate information useful in supporting local adaptation. For example, in examining managed aquifer recharge as a viable strategy to adapt to earlier snowmelt and enhance groundwater sustainability, stakeholders provided key insights concerning barriers to implement this strategy. These included the risk of oversaturating fields that might prevent infiltration and existing institutional constraints that prevent earlier diversions for irrigation purposes. Modelers, in turn, used local stakeholders’ knowledge to develop decision making criteria, arriving at model simulations representative of the river system.
Third, the project provided iterative and structured interaction between stakeholders and the interdisciplinary research team to ensure results are useful to local decision-making. Biannual workshops provided a consistent forum for these interactions with notable attributes including pre-workshop lunches, structured facilitation, relevant agenda topics, appropriate science expertise, and “take-home” information binders to disseminate materials to stakeholders’ constituents.
Fourth, the project combined diverse, practical stakeholder knowledge with rigorous scientific research to coproduce legitimate climate science information. Stakeholders acknowledged the research team’s careful selection of the Stakeholder Affiliate Group, who interacted frequently with researchers, to ensure diverse water use interests and perspectives were embodied in the research. Stakeholders also reflected on the transparency and fairness of facilitated interactions, whereby cussions.
Fifth, the project effectively utilized Extension as a boundary organization to conceptualize, implement, and formatively evaluate the efficacy of the collaborative research design. Having extension researchers with disciplinary expertise embedded within the research team was instrumental to guide and support the co-production of legitimate climate science information while navigating the social complexities that surround water management issues. Research team members interviewed as part of the summative evaluation highlighted the need for continued use of extension research faculty to facilitate effective collaborative research outcomes especially when simulations lead to contention among stakeholders who perceive implementation as infeasible.
Review of the evaluation data collected affirms that the project achieved its desired outcomes concerning river system-wide effects of stakeholder-informed climate scenarios, simulated adaptation strategies identified as viable by stakeholders, and ways in which improved communication and coordination among stakeholders might enhance system-wide climate resiliency. A retrospective assessment following the sixth and final workshop illustrates ways in which the collaborative research undertaking in this project could have improved so as to increase water managers’ capacity to adapt to climate-induced water supply variability. With regards to procedure, stakeholders requested that in future projects researchers:
- include multiple stakeholders for each water use sector;
- conduct public workshops in locations across the river system; and 3) increase opportunities for engagement between researchers and stakeholders.
With regards to research substance, stakeholders requested that in future projects researchers:
- incorporate scenarios of population growth and development;
- expand the research to include implications for water quality; and
- provide technical support to help stakeholders integrate research results into their adaptation planning.
Further empirical case study work is necessary to test and standardize metrics to assess collaborative research successes and failures, and to verify emergent practices that guide the coproduction of new climate information for the purpose of supporting local adaptation in snow-fed river basins.
Water for the Seasons was a five-year (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2019) collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Water Sustainability and Climate program. Across the western United States, snow-fed arid land river systems face increasing challenges as climate change alters upstream snowpack accumulation and snowmelt that influences downstream water availability to support diverse and competing water management interests (Dettinger et al., 2015; Li et al., 2017; USGCRP, 2017). Using the Truckee-Carson River System in California and Nevada as a case study, this project developed and implemented a collaborative modeling research design to assess the climate resiliency under climate-induced water supply variability (Singletary and Sterle, 2017, 2018). Resiliency in this context is defined as the capacity of natural and human systems to absorb and adapt to climatic disturbances while retaining their essential purpose and function by allowing key components to cooperatively reorganize as necessary (Aldrich, 2012; Folke et al., 2010; Matarrita-Cascante et al., 2017; McGinnis and Ostrom, 2014; Walker and Salt, 2012; Wilson, 2012).
The Truckee-Carson River System comprises the Truckee (195 km) and Carson (211 km) river basins which originate as snowpack in the Sierra Nevada of California and flow northeastward into the arid Great Basin in northwestern Nevada. The river system typifies challenges observed across the western United States, where water supply is highly dependent on accumulated snow that melts through spring to meet late summer demand (Sterle and Singletary, 2017). The 18,197 square management challenges common to snow-fed river dependent communities in the arid western United States including allocating limited water resources to:
- support municipal and industrial development, population growth, and recreation;
- provide for irrigated agriculture through an inter-basin transfer;
- rehabilitate and protect ecological systems; and
- honor federal treaties with Native American tribes to allocate water to reservation lands (Gautam et al., 2014; Horton, 1997; 1996;; Wilds, 2014).
The collaborative modeling research design convened researchers with stakeholders who were selected to represent the diverse agricultural, environmental, and municipal and industrial water management interests across the river system, from headwaters to terminus, and included the system’s pertinent water regulatory authority. Climate science information generated was disseminated through a variety of products including:
- an analysis of qualitative and quantitative data reflecting stakeholders’ perceptions of river system functionality under climate change (e.g., Singletary and Sterle, 2017; Sterle et al., 2019; Sterle and Singletary, 2017);
- climate “stress-test” scenarios informed from stakeholder narratives and guided by climate scientists’ expertise (e.g., Albano, 2019; Dettinger et al., 2017);
- hydrologic and river operations model simulation results quantifying the extent to which climate scenarios alter water availability and challenge water managers’ ability to meet diverse and competing water demands (e.g., Morway et al., 2016; Niswonger et al., 2017; Sterle et al., 2019); and
- econometric models that assessed the economic performance over time of prior appropriation doctrine to reallocate water from lower to higher value uses (e.g., Lee et al., 2020). These products were intended to provide climate information services to support stakeholders’ climate adaptation planning.
In this paper, we present new insights gleaned from formative and summative evaluation of the Water for the Seasons project to assess the extent to which collaborative research generated climate science information. First, we synthesize scholarly literature that demonstrates the prominent role of collaborative research in climate adaptation research. Next, we briefly describe the collaborative research design developed and implemented for this project. Using formative and summative evaluative data collected over the duration of the project, we then report stakeholders’ and researchers’ perceptions of project processes and outcomes. Lastly, we discuss the need for additional empirical research to assess and document the successes and failures of collaborative research processes and outcomes more generally, in order to verify emergent best practices to guide collaborative research that is intended to support climate adaptation.
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