Coping with Change: Water Availability and Arid Land Management

Rapid changes in water availability, due to climate change or land and water management practices, can present extreme challenges to arid land agricultural systems, ecosystems, and economies. In the American West the existing risks of water shortage, desertification, and low sustainability in arid lands have been compounded over the last hundred years by the increased removal of water resources from rural watersheds for use in cities. Agricultural arid land communities struggle as they simultaneously face climate change, variable water availability, encroaching urban development, increasingly polarized agricultural politics, and rapid inflation in the costs of business. Climate change and changes in water and land management policy can result not only in destabilization of local agriculture and economies, but can also have detrimental environmental effects, altering ecological systems and processes. In the face of these challenges, households, communities, and governmental resource management agencies will have to make changes in order to cope; however, strategies to adapt to new conditions will depend on perceptions of climate change, water availability, and how these affect the local agricultural resource base. Studying the effects of changes in water availability on arid lands and their key stakeholder groups has been particularly challenging because the impacts of climate change and water policy are felt at a variety of scales, including Federal, State, regional and local. At each scale individuals perceive the changes differently and respond in unique ways shaped by cultural and institutional influences. This project will examine how various stakeholder groups at different scales perceive climate and water policy changes and how these perceptions affect natural resources and management decisions. The investigators will examine historical data on climate, water availability, and vegetation, combining this with interviews, participatory GIS, documented water management policies, and historical personal accounts of environmental change and response in order to assess the relationship between measured and perceived environmental change as well as to understand better how people's perceptions shape the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of coping strategies. By studying the human and natural systems together, the investigators will be able to examine the complex feedbacks between them through time and across spatial scales.

This project will have significant implications for land management, water policy, and biodiversity conservation planning in semi-arid lands and other water-limited environments. Our empirical analysis will allow replication and model development for other systems or locations to examine the resilience and sustainability of local practices and government policies. The results of this study will contribute to developing sustainable approaches to coping with variable water availability and policy shifts by helping land managers understand the past and plan for the future. The results will also contribute to better understanding of the dynamic relationship between climate, water availability, and vegetation communities in the Eastern Sierra region, which will be of interest to land managers developing conservation and range management plans. Water policy and conservation planning have traditionally been a top-down exercise, ignoring scale, changes through time and from place to place. This project will generate new knowledge about how environmental perception and response vary with scale and time, and how this knowledge can be used to adaptively manage coupled natural and human systems.

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Other Investigator(s): 
American Eastern Sierra