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Decision Making Without All the Data: Challenges in Building Long-Term Water Security

July 26th, 2016 · No Comments · Water

Charlie-Esther_tInterview with Charlie Ester – Salt River Project
*Intro by Kimerly Wiltshire – Carpe Diem West
Re-posted with permission: Carpe Diem West  guides an innovation network of diverse leaders working to address the effects of climate change and create water security solutions for people and the environment of the American West. 

“VUCA” – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – is one of those wonky phrases that makes western water managers and local decision makers want to tear their hair out. But VUCA is the reality as our climate changes and increases the risk of catastrophic wildfire in our headwater forests. And the truth is, we don’t know the exact magnitude of the impacts to come, the long-term effects of forest treatments, or what the return on investment will be.

So how do you set a direction to ensure community water security in the decades to come when there are so many unknowns and what we know now may already be changing?

You plow ahead by taking no-regrets, science-based steps to make headwaters as resilient as possible. Waiting for the “perfect” data isn’t an option. As Charlie Ester, water operations manager for Salt River Project puts it, “time is not on our side.”… We spoke with Charlie about how SRP, along with their partners, are braving uncertainty and investing in their forests to build long-term water security.*


Photo Credit: Salt River Project

What advice would you give other water managers who are stuck feeling like they need all the data or the perfect data in order to move forward with the decision to protect their watersheds?

It’s not a fun or enviable position to be in, to be trying to make these decisions without enough data. But you know that it’s got to be done.

What I would tell people is that if you are waiting for the perfect set of data or the perfect research project that will validate your concerns and/or your position or your progress: don’t wait. The reason I say that is you never have enough data. Every time you get a data point, you want the next one. But what does the next point say? Is that going to continue to validate? There’s never enough data and there’s never enough studies.

What I would recommend people do is, look at the big picture. How is your watershed functioning? What is threatening the watershed? And then you take measured, calculated steps to address that risk. And you also make decisions of “least regret”. You make an investment where if it turns out that you that weren’t exactly on target, you didn’t hurt anything. You just may not have helped it as much as you could’ve if you had done a little bit differently.

But time is not on our side when it comes to the forest and downstream water supply issues facing the Western United States. Time is our enemy for a couple of reasons. The forest conditions are already bad. The risks are already manifesting themselves. And every day we wait, we’re going to lose another watershed somewhere. We’re going to lose more acreage to fire, more acreage to pests, more acreage to drought. We’ve got to move now. Just make those decisions that you’re not going to regret later.

What’s it like to move forward with healthy headwaters projects without having the “perfect” data to back them up?

In a sense, we are kind of flying blind here. We know it’s the right thing to do but we don’t have all the numbers to support it yet.

If you think about our infrastructure in the forest, our dam facilities are probably worth billions of dollars if you had to build them today. So there’s this huge investment in our water supply and it’s everyone’s understanding or belief that these dams will be able to provide water to the Phoenix area for, certainly not forever, but at least several hundred years with continued maintenance and care. It’s a really good feeling to know these are paid for, they’re there, they’re operating, they’re working as they should. But they rely upon water from this forest and watershed that is at a high risk of catastrophic fire, and subsequent massive erosion and deterioration of water quality, which could basically render some of these facilities, if not worthless, a lot less viable than they are now.

We get back to the question of, “What would you do if there was this horrible catastrophe of most of the watershed burning?” And I don’t really know what you can do. You can’t rely completely on groundwater because that’s a limited resource. You can’t import water from the Central Arizona Project on the Colorado River for two reasons: one, it’s already been allocated, and two, it’s not that reliable right now anyways because we’re staring down a shortage as it is. So the only alternative that you have is to promote the quickest possible restoration of the forestland so that it becomes less vulnerable to these catastrophic fires.
Every time there’s a lightning strike, you’re scared to death. That’s not the way the forest should be.

We know that Arizona’s forests are highly adaptive ecosystems; we shouldn’t fear fire in these places because it’s natural. It helps restore the land. It invigorates growth and helps the soil and all that good stuff. So you just know it’s the right thing to do and when you are making a pitch to management, for example, to provide funding to implement these projects or to provide funding to the Forest Service to help move these things along quicker, you just make that case with them that this is what’s at risk and it’s not acceptable. We can’t allow it to happen.

Are there any times in your work where having the “perfect paired watershed study” or the “perfect downscaled climate model” would make it easier or more effective to implement a healthy headwaters project?

Having all the answers would make things easier because when you are responsible for investing money, you want to make sure that you’re not wasting it. So yeah, it would certainly help to have better numbers. But I don’t really believe that it would change our approach because we do tend to be relatively conservative when we make decisions. It’s usually after great deal of thought and consideration.

And you mentioned a paired watershed study. Those are expensive to do, and they also take a long time to do. I would say probably the fastest you could do a reasonable paired watershed study is 15 years. And we don’t have 15 years of luxury time to just sit back and wait because the climate is already changing dramatically. So for example, one of the reasons one does a paired watershed study is to determine what the hydrologic impacts are of treatment. Of course, SRP is very interested in that. But we’re not interested in it in the sense of, “How much water-yield increase are we going to get?” I just want to know, “What is the impact? Is it more water? Is it the same water? Is it less water?”

So would a paired watershed be a good way to do that? I don’t really think so because the paired watershed study is way up on the mountain. They’re relatively small – 1,000 to 2,000 acres each – and our watershed areas that contribute to the reservoirs are thousands of square miles. So a paired watershed study cannot be extrapolated down to the reservoirs.

We’re trying to detect changes over time. We already have a hundred years of data that we’ve been collecting, and we feel like in the next 15 to 20, maybe 30 years, with enough statistical precision, that we should be able to say whether restoration produced more or less or the same amount of water. And the one point that I always make to everyone is, it doesn’t matter what the answer is because the watershed ecosystem requires that it be thinned and restored.

Even if it makes less water for downstream users, it makes more resilient and sustainable water. And it’s really the resiliency and the sustainability that we’re after. And if that means the watershed produces 5% less water over time, but it’s resilient and sustainable, that means I’m more likely to keep getting that clean, fresh water produced off the watershed than if I were to say, “I want that extra 5%. I’m willing to let the watershed burn for that.” Because once it burns, I don’t want any water from that watershed.

Charlie is a 29-year veteran of SRP, and Water Resource Operations Manager for the last 15 years. 


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