Decisions, Decisions: How to Get to Yes with Science and Water

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Published on October 19th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

My first car was a 1972 Dodge Dart Swinger. I bought it my junior year in high school from the original owner. It had 18,000 miles on it, cat hair everywhere, potpourri in the ash tray, rust on the fenders, and the whole thing was an ugly dark gold color that in no way made you think of money. In short, it was perfect.

I cleaned it up, had it tuned it up, and proceeded to slide around the wintery streets of suburban Chicago in it. The heat worked and I could not be happier. However, a few months later I found myself increasingly aggravated by the limited offerings of the AM radio, so I made the decision to remove it by any means necessary. I set to cracking off the plastic “wood” paneling that covered the face of the radio and found a steel dashboard underneath. Well, that wasn’t going to stop me, so I set to eradicating the AM radio from its steely cage using a pair of tin snips from my dad’s workshop. The result wasn’t pretty. I was left with a jagged hole in my instrument panel, a now defunct AM radio (still stuck inside), and the feeling that I had probably made a pretty bad decision. And it was a bad decision. I didn’t consider any alternatives (e.g. mount a new radio elsewhere) or the consequences of my decision (e.g. fitting a new radio into a jagged hole), I didn’t talk to an expert like an auto mechanic or my uncle (who I later found out had taken apart that exact make and model piece by piece just for fun). Hell, I didn’t even Google it.

The lessons I learned from that decision were always forefront in my mind during my internship work last spring for The Nature Conservancy’s Louisiana program. My job was to use decision analysis to figure out how to create a science-informed decision-making process for restoration efforts in the Atchafalaya River Basin in Louisiana, a place more complicated than I reckon any place has a right to be.

A Gumbo of Conflict, Communication, Science and Uncertainty

A century ago, the Atchafalaya was a complex river system of bayous, backwaters and swamps. Now it is a floodway of national importance (complete with levees and a control structure complex that determines the amount of water that enters the Atchafalaya River Basin) that protects millions of lives and billions of dollars of infrastructure in the port cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans…and a complex river system of bayous, backwaters and swamps.

However, the basin is rapidly changing in response to how the flood control infrastructure has altered its hydrology, impacting the quintessential culture of the basin: the iconic cypress forests are in decline, crawfish habitat is changing, and there is conflict among stakeholders. For example, the altered hydrology has reduced the area of crawfish habitat through sedimentation and the development of large areas of stagnant, low-oxygen water. So crawfishermen seek out new areas for harvest that sometimes include private property. This has led to conflict between property owners and crawfishermen.

A well-structured decision process can facilitate productive communication between these stakeholder groups and foster an understanding of various concerns and points of view. Further, users of the basin, such as the crawfishermen, have expert knowledge of the geography of the basin. Incorporating their knowledge into restoration project decisions can help improve hydrologic conditions and eliminate the root cause of conflict between landowners and crawfishermen.

But while science has some solutions for us, science can offer a bit of a cold shoulder; it is dispassionate; not valueless, but value-neutral. It informs us but it is our values that render the result positive or negative. Make no mistake; science is essential to a good decision, but think of science as the gasoline in a car. We need it to drive, but it doesn’t choose the destination.

And most car owners don’t know exactly how our vehicles work—we just need them to. Our natural environment is the same: We need it to mitigate floods, provide safe drinking water and extractable resources, and provide respite from the concrete jungle, but we don’t know exactly how the system functions as a whole or how it will respond to our particular uses. So good environmental management needs to incorporate these uncertainties and science into decisions that protect the livelihoods of stakeholders—and to prevent nature’s whimsy from leaving a gaping, jagged hole in their lives.

So how do these decisions on how to use the basin’s resources get made in the face of uncertainties, multiple stakeholders and a diverse set of values? And can we take that cold shoulder of science and make it more inclusive? Because, after all:

  • We could make the same decision I did and just start cutting, which would no doubt result in many unhappy stakeholders.
  • Or we could consult scientists and experts to make a more informed decision about the ecosystem’s response to any particular decision, but there would still be some uncertainty regarding the future performance of the system and the impact on our values.

This dilemma is where the science of decisionmaking comes into play and can result in improved, durable decisions for environmental management.

Decision Analysis: Addressing the Dilemmas and Making Science Inclusive

In the Atchafalaya, the process begins with the stakeholders: crawfishermen, landowners, recreationists, etc.—those who will be affected by management decisions. Each stakeholder group identifies the issues as framed by their values. For example, crawfishermen desire improved crawfish habitat, while landowners are concerned with habitat degradation and trespass issues. From the variety of issues brought to the table, stakeholders, managers, and (in many instances) a neutral facilitator develop an overarching fundamental objective that incorporates the diversity of stakeholder values into a management goal.

The fundamental objective is the anchor; it establishes the foundation for building a sense of common purpose among stakeholders, because it is something that they can all see the good in. In the Atchafalaya, a fundamental objective might be to improve the hydrology of the basin. Improved hydrology can reduce habitat degradation, which could also serve to increase and improve crawfish habitat—thereby reducing trespass issues and improving recreational aesthetics.

The fundamental objective also frames the available management alternatives and illuminates the uncertainties in the system’s response. This is where the science comes in. Unlike cars, nature doesn’t have a manufacturer with perfect knowledge of the system—so we rely on scientists to inform us of our alternatives and the potential consequences of our decision. Decision analysis guides the use of that science in an inclusive way by putting scientists in the room with stakeholders to evaluate alternatives. Using rigorous scientific methods, the consequences and trade-offs for the alternatives are worked out and walked through with the stakeholders present. Instead of a “tell us what you want and we’ll go away and figure it out” approach, stakeholders become a part of the decision process by helping to develop the best alternative.

And it works. Presenting the science to stakeholders in a step-by-step process has shown it can create more durable management decisions because those decisions have stakeholder support, in large part  because they are better understood and, more importantly, support stakeholder values. As environmental systems have multiple stakeholders with conflicting objectives, this process of analyzing alternatives and consequences in a transparent manner is crucial for qualifying and accommodating uncertainty and avoiding conflict.

Because, in the end, conservation isn’t so much about making the right decisions; right and wrong are subjective. Conservation is about making good decisions.

And no, I never did get that AM radio out…but I did reclassify my boom box into a multipurpose armrest.

Justin Kozak is an intern with The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. He is a student at Southern Illinois University and a recipient of a prestigious NSF-IGERT fellowship.

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One Response to “Decisions, Decisions: How to Get to Yes with Science and Water”

  1. Johnny Armstrong says:

    Justin,
    Lets just say, when it comes to science and writing you are “A-Team.” Thank you for choosing conservation as your mission. You warm my heart.

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