Building Capacity for Incorporating Uncertainties and Communicating Results in Reclamation’s Long Term Planning and Decision-Making Processes

Project ID: 6262
Principal Investigator: Arlan Nickel
Research Topic: Water Operation Models and Decision Support Systems
Priority Area Assignments: 2014 (Climate Change and Variability Research)
Funded Fiscal Years: 2014
Keywords: decision support tools; uncertainties; climate change analysis; robust decision making

Research Question

Reclamation increasingly must address climate change in its long-term water resources planning activities. Standard water resources planning methods need to be augmented with new approaches to account for the significant uncertainty in future climatic and hydrologic changes. The 2011 report by Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, Addressing Climate Change in Long-Term Water Resources Planning and Management: User Needs for Improving Tools and Information, identifies a number of significant gaps in Reclamation data and analytic capabilities to adequately address climate change.

This project focuses primarily on addressing questions related to Step 8—Communicating Results and Uncertainties to Decisionmakers. Specifically, this project will address three questions:

• Which methods for decisionmaking under uncertainty are most appropriate for different types of Reclamation planning activities? (8.01) This study will review methods ranging from scenario analysis, probabilistic assessment, to robust decision methods. It will then evaluate existing applications and/or develop new applications of each type of approach for comparison and teaching purposes.
• How should Reclamation project managers select the most appropriate methodology at the initiation of a planning activity? (8.01) This study will explore which characteristics of water planning problems require different treatments of climate uncertainty.
• How should specific techniques for decisionmaking under uncertainty be used to inform planning and feasibility decisionmaking by Reclamation? (8.02) This study will evaluate how best to apply different decision analytic approaches across a variety of planning activities to inform decisionmaking.

To address these questions, Reclamation staff will partner with researchers from the RAND Corporation with extensive experience developing and deploying methods for decisionmaking under uncertainty in different water and natural resources planning contexts.

Need and Benefit

The 2011 report by Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, Addressing Climate Change in Long-Term Water Resources Planning and Management: User Needs for Improving Tools and Information, identifies a number of significant gaps in Reclamation data and analytic capabilities to adequately address climate change. Key deficiencies identified include those related to how to more fully address climate uncertainty in planning activities and how to present that uncertainty to planners such that they can best inform water management decisionmaking.

The latest literature surrounding decisionmaking under climate uncertainty suggests that these two aspects of planning ought to be integrated. For example, the National Academy of Sciences 2011 report, Americas Climate Choices (NAS, 2011), recommends that analysis play a supportive rather than prescriptive role for climate adaptation planning. A so-called "deliberation with analysis" recognizes that uncertainty and values cannot be easily distilled down to mathematically convenient probability distributions and value functions. Climate adaptation analyses rather must be participatory and iterative to allow diverse stakeholders to understand the implications of their beliefs and values. The analysis should trace out the implications of different management decisions across a wide range of plausible future conditions and then present the key tradeoffs in a manner such that stakeholders and decisionmakers can assess how best to hedge against uncertainty and balance across multiple and diverging values.

Reclamation has made strides addressing these suggested decisionmaking requirements. Notably, the 2012 Colorado River Basin Study (Reclamation, 2012) uses a quantitative scenario analysis to evaluate climate uncertainty and address a wide-range of performance metrics. By design, however, the Basin Study was not intended to be a decisional document. The best approach for incorporating the extensive and comprehensive analysis into a decision analysis remains at the frontier of decision science.

This study is specifically designed to evaluate and describe how different approaches to decisionmaking under uncertainty can be applied to help Reclamation's long range planning activities assimilate climate change information and other future uncertainties and support deliberations over alternatives adaptation strategies. Each task of this study will provide tangible benefits to Reclamation programs and staff:

The first task—research and synthesis—will provide a concise written resource, complementing existing guidance, to assist planners across Reclamation address climate change in their planning processes.

The second task—structure interview—will document the climate decision support needs from the perspective of Reclamation planners and will help target the development of teaching materials on decisionmaking methodologies.

The third task—decision analysis case study development and comparison—will develop concise descriptions of water planning and decision support best practices and will provide real-world examples of useful methodologies for addressing climate change.

The fourth task—webinars and seminars on decisionmaking under uncertainty—will provide opportunities for Reclamation planners to learn the most appropriate tools for addressing climate change in planning activities including the WaterSmart Basin Studies and infrastructure feasibility investigations.

To summarize, at the conclusion of this project, Reclamation project managers will have the knowledge and skills necessary to develop and implement project planning processes that take full advantage of these state-of-the-art decision support methods, and Reclamation managers and stakeholders will have the resources necessary to better inform the decisionmaking process in the face of multiple future uncertainties.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

This study will produce the following products:

Task 1 will produce a white paper documenting and comparing the leading analytic approaches for addressing climate change in water resources planning. This paper will be peer reviewed by RAND and made available to Reclamation and the broader water management community.

Task 2 will produce a project memorandum to the S&T program describing the need for analytic climate change decision support across a variety of Reclamation programs.

Task 3 will develop 4-6 teaching case studies comprised of a technical analysis, interactive visualizations highlighting the salient results, and written documentation. Each will be reviewed by the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Task 4 will provide a complete set of webinars covering the material produced in Tasks 1 and 3.

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Last Updated: 4/4/17