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Running the Climate Rapids – An Interview with Kristen Averyt

Kristen Averyt HS WebWhat I see is that climate change isn’t the only problem – water managers are also dealing with a host of other factors. Population growth. Changing demand regimes. It’s not so much that climate change constitutes a separate problem, but that it enhances all of these problems.

We talked with Dr. Kristen Averyt, at Western Water Assessment, about decision-making challenges facing western water managers.


What are some of the biggest challenges facing western water managers seeking to incorporate climate change into their work?

What I see is that climate change isn’t the only problem – water managers are also dealing with a host of other factors. Population growth. Changing demand regimes. It’s not so much that climate change constitutes a separate problem, but that it enhances all of these problems. For example, in the Colorado Basin we’re expecting to see flows decline between 5 and 20 percent due to climate change. But if, say, demand increases by 50 percent in the same time frame, which issue might be more urgent to address? Climate change makes it all the more urgent that we get better at efficiently using and managing water.

Water managers have traditionally focused on certainty. Have you seen that culture shift in response to the new era of uncertainty brought on by climate change?

I think it’s a misnomer to call climate change a new era of uncertainty. The truth is that water managers have always dealt with uncertainty. They’ve always asked themselves, “what are the worst conditions we’re likely to see” – the worst drought, the worst flood, and so forth – and then plan for that. Climate change just changes the realm of possibilities.

I also don’t think uncertainty is as paralyzing as it’s made out to be. In arid regions like the Southwest, water managers have always developed innovative approaches to deal with arid conditions, and now we’re seeing the same folks get together to talk about water management in ways we’ve never seen before. One example is the Joint Front Range Climate Change Vulnerability Study, where the Colorado Front Range water providers pooled their resources to work with local scientists to develop a collective approach to dealing with climate change. By the end of that study, the water managers were discussing the finer technical points of climate models and downscaling methods right alongside the scientists. That was a big step forward. And the real value of those collaborations is not so much the end product, but the process itself. It paves the way for future collaborations.

What’s a topic you’d like to see the Carpe Diem West Academy take on in the coming months?

What we’ve found in our research and through conversations with water resource managers is that it’s not just about generating new information or providing better training on how to use climate information. Rather, we find that people aren’t aware of many of the climate tools that are already out there to help provide decision-making support. This suggests that scientists and developers may not be successfully marketing or advertising the tools they produce, and this creates a real disconnect with the user community. What we really need is to invest in getting the word out, perhaps more so than in new tools. And it’s great to see the work the Carpe Diem West Academy is doing to fill that need.

Kristin Averyt serves as the Deputy Director of the Western Water Assessment, one of the NOAA-sponsored Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment (RISA) Programs, which focuses on developing climate science relevant to decision makers throughout the western U.S. Her current research portfolio encompasses a broad suite of climate issues, including: assessing the intersection of renewable energy technologies, water availability, and climate change in the West; evaluating decision-making in the context of climate adaptation; and defining processes for engaging users in the development of climate services. Dr. Averyt received her PhD from Stanford University in 2005.

8/19/11

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