Scoping Tools for Water Conflict Management

Project ID: 1380
Principal Investigator: Douglas Clark
Research Topic: Water Resource Data Analysis
Funded Fiscal Years: 2014
Keywords: None

Research Question

Negative externalities such as quagga mussels,changing rural and urban demographics, water demand exceeding supply, and climate variability will likely aggravate the already contentious Western Water landscape. Tools are required to diagnose the true nature of existing or brewing water conflicts. We propose to inventory and evaluate existing diagnostic methods and models (eg. the circle of conflict model, the boundary model, the interests/rights/power model, the dynamics of trust model, the dimensions model, the social styles model, structured decision-making,etc.)for their potential application in defining evolving conflicts. If no current tool or tools exist to diagnose the underlying dynamics of Reclamation water disputes, we propose to use these methods as springboards to develop one or more diagnostic methods of our own. These will make use of data gathered from Reclamation water managers, subject matter experts, stakeholders, and others to understand the underlying dynamics of disputes. Having this information will help conflict managers to classify disputes into various dispute types, based upon salient characteristics in a variety of domains: scientific, legal, institutional, interpersonal, power, etc. One such diagnostic tool is the USGS Legal Institutional Analysis Model (see: Such tools could provide improved means of achieving more proactive, efficient, and effective dispute management and resolution results. A multidimensional classification tool will undoubtedly be useful to help identify which dispute resolution tools have the highest likelihood of achieving successful outcomes for Reclamation managers: eg. adaptive management, adaptive governance, joint fact-finding, etc.

Need and Benefit

Conflict managers have repeatedly told us that they often find themselves deep into conflicts before they are able to discern what the real issues are and how the associated politics are related to these issue-sets. Conflicts can happen because each side has a different perception as to the true nature of the problem at hand or because each side is operating with a different set of data, which may or may not be complete or accurate. Conflicts happen because the various sides have destructive stereotypes of their opponents. Conflicts occur because various sides have distorted views of the priorities or agendas of their opponents. They happen because opponents have a destructive history with one another. They occur when one or more stakeholders believes that others lack jurisdiction, legitimacy, or legal standing in a dispute. Disputes occur when various personality types interact. For instance a quietly objective person who values data analysis may come into conflict with an aggressive person who demands instant results. Conflicts can occur when one side or another feels that it lacks power or recourse. These and similar facts must be sorted out early on.

Here are some examples. Conflicts over science are sometimes really issues about politics or the reverse. A manager in Albuquerque reported that he had an incident where one scientist who considered his/her work to be unassailable became embroiled in a bitter conflict with others who viewed it as flawed. This conflict was really interpersonal in nature, not scientific. A university instructor has reported that how water is valued can result in conflict. For instance whereas a farmer, rancher, or manufacturer may view water as an essential input for their business, a Native American may view it as sacred. Religious views amongst the general public can also come into play. One Reclamation conflict manager noted that a person attending a public meeting said there could not be a 10,000 year flood scenario for a particular basin because the earth was only 5000 years old. Perceptions about government and government employees can also shape conflicts. A recent publication on the Platte River dispute resolution reported that certain constituencies were convinced that the Federal government was simply trying to wrest control of the river's waters from the states. These dynamics must be scoped out in advance of selecting a conflict resolution process.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

Independent Peer Review

The following documents were reviewed by qualified Bureau of Reclamation employees. The findings were determined to be achieved using valid means.

Managing Disputes over Science: Contested Factors (final, PDF, 744KB)
By Douglas Clark
Report completed on September 23, 2014

This research sought to examine the importance of seven factors commonly found in disputes over science using an electronic survey of Reclamation managers and professional staff. Analysis of survey data yielded the following rank order: 1. inferences drawn from the science, 2. whether or not the existing science addressed the critical issues, 3. the level of uncertainty in the science, 4. the quality of the data used, 5. the need for additional scientific investigation, 6. whether or not scien

Bureau of Reclamation Review

The following documents were reviewed by experts in fields relating to this project's study and findings. The results were determined to be achieved using valid means.

Manual for Managing Disputes Over Science (final, PDF, 1.0MB)
By Doug Clark
Publication completed on June 30, 2016

Focus groups on the genesis of water conflict found that disputes over science occurred repeatedly and consumed a substantial time and money to resolve. A subsequent survey of Reclamation showed that these disputes occurred in distinct domains: the biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, water supply and demand, agriculture, and cultural resources. In addition, specific aspects of the science were disputed: management of scientific enterprises, scientific competency, classification, measurement, standards, data, analytic methods, modeling and interpretation. Reclamation water managers need tools for managing disputes over science and forums where they may be used. It was observed that the various domains listed above could benefit from comprehensive mapping and geospatial analysis. A set of geospatial tools, including geographic information systems and geospatial modeling, is described. In addition, a list of tools for addressing the scientific disputes are proposed including, among others: collaborative planning, collaborative modeling, making use of international standards, and development of project management and data management plans. Finally, six forums for the management of disputes are briefly described: direct discussions among disputing scientists, independent expert peer review, conducting additional science, collaborative learning, public education, and adapti ve management.

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Last Updated: 6/22/20