Tools for Managing of Disputes over Science in the Bureau of Reclamation

Project ID: 6641
Principal Investigator: Douglas Clark
Research Topic: Water Resource Data Analysis
Funded Fiscal Years: 2013
Keywords: collaborative competency, dispute over science, water allocation decision, water conflict management

Research Question

This research will conduct in-depth analyses of selected disputes over science to understand what tools were used to manage them during the history of the dispute. There will be a special focus on adaptive management for managing disputes over science. The research follows on three previous water conflict management research efforts: the Western Water Institutional Solutions effort (a collaboration with Oregon State University), a study of the use of adaptive management forums for water conflict management, and an electronic survey of Reclamation personnel regarding the etiology and resolution of disputes over science. Each of these efforts have contributed to our understanding of how to convert conflict into collaboration. We learned from the first study that many water conflicts within Reclamation are either wholly or partially disputes over science. We learned from the second that adaptive management workshops can be effective as forums in managing such disputes. And we learned from the third effort that disputes over science have extremely rich and varied characters. The findings of each effort either have been or will soon be incorporated into water conflict management training modules developed to help Reclamation engineers, scientists, and managers to integrate collaborative competency into their overall set of professional skills. The current research will allow us to conduct intensive investigations of specific disputes over science by talking directly with the Reclamation personnel who managed them. From these managers we will learn what underlay the disputes, what tools were used to manage them, what actions were taken that were productive and what were not, how success was measured, how impasses were managed, and what effective actions were taken along the way to maintain core agency operations.

Need and Benefit

In focus group studies conducted in the course of the Western Water Institutional solutions research effort, we asked what percent of their time Reclamation managers spent on average each day managing water conflict. The answer was invariably 50% to 100%. Another commonality amongst area offices was a complaint (especially amongst water managers) that they frequently had to make water allocation decisions in an environment characterized by scientific uncertainty. For instance, scientists differed as to the amount of water a specific endangered species required to survive. Or scientists could not agree as to the extent to which groundwater withdrawals contributed to surface water depletion. Or they could not agree as to what constituted a wetland. In the electronic survey on disputes over science conducted in 2011 we learned that disputes over science were pervasive in Reclamation. For instance the EPA made an assertion that the Leadville Mine Tunnel was subject to collapse. Reclamation conducted a study of the tunnel that was subsequently peer-reviewed by the Colorado School of Mines showing that the EPA's assertion was not correct. (Peer-review has been shown to be one way to manage conflicts over science). It is time to do more intensive analyses and to compile the lessons learned by our scientists, engineers, and managers into a reference guide.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

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.

Implementation of the Endangered Species Act on the Platte River Basin: Summary of an Interview with Dr. Curtis Brown, Platte River Study Manager (final, PDF, 275KB)
By Douglas Clark and Dennis Kubly
Report completed on November 12, 2013

Dr. Curtis Brown, Reclamation Study Manager for the Platte River Recovery effort, describes lessons learned regarding conflict management during his tenure. Among these were: (a. sometimes new institutional structures must be developed for progress to be made, (b. uncontrolled internal and external factors can impinge on the success of dispute resolution process, (c. legal efforts to "keep the record clean" can be problematic (d. external peer review can help resolve disputes over science

Managing Disputes Over Science: Contested Factors (final, PDF, 820KB)
By Douglas Clark
Publication completed on September 30, 2015

This bulletin summarizes the research results and potential application to Reclamation's mission.

Return to Research Projects

Last Updated: 4/4/17