Is process enough to make big, watery dreams come true? The example of CALFED in the U.S.

Contribution by Sara Hughes NCAR (USA). There may be an unwritten rule in water governance: collaboration is key. We advocate collaboration between decision makers and stakeholders, between government departments with different responsibilities, and between actors at different scales. There are many cases that have been used to understand when and how such collaboration has occurred and with what consequences. One particular case, the case of CALFED in California, is an example of a large collaborative undertaking that worked…for about five years. But it seems that researchers are not ready to let it go. Why not?

According to the State of California, CALFED, as created in 2000, “is a unique collaboration among 25 state and federal agencies that came together with a mission: to improve California’s water supply and the ecological health of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta”.

However, the State goes on to point out that things have not always gone very smoothly for CALFED: “CALFED’s early years were fraught with complaints that the program was not accomplishing what it was created to do. Complaints were that CALFED was not able to exhibit the kind of leadership necessary to push forward the program’s agenda and that it was unable to show or measure the results it claimed to have achieved. Much of this was due to the fact that despite its name, the California Bay-Delta Authority did not have any real authority to direct the 24 other CALFED implementing agencies, all of which had their own organizational priorities and values. Additionally, while several attempts were made to try to measure CALFED’s progress, none had been successful”.

In 2005 the Little Hoover Commission reviewed the status of CALFED’s progress in meeting its goals and concluded that, “CALFED was forged from a crisis, and to a crisis it has returned”. The reasons CALFED failed to achieve its aims largely stem from a lack of authority and unclear and unstable revenue streams. Since the Little Hoover Commission review, CALFED has been reorganized to focus on contributing to the State Water Plan and funding and coordinating research. In fact, my own dissertation research was generously funded by CALFED.

However, unlike the Little Hoover Commission, there are many who are not willing to characterize CALFED as a failure in collaborative governance. At a meeting on the Bay-Delta system I attended in 2008 a prominent NGO activist and scientist summarized (uncontested) the status of CALFED: it no longer performs the coordinating and problem-solving role it was originally intended to play. But, she was quick to point out, this does not mean CALFED failed. She claimed that the new levels of trust between agencies and relationships among managers – the intangibles – are CALFED successes. This shift in focus for evaluating CALFED – from tangible environmental and water management outcomes to intangible process and relationship building outcomes – is also reflected in research.

The majority of academic research papers written about CALFED has either marginalized or ignored the fact that there is little (if any) evidence that CALFED contributed directly to improved water management in California. Like the scientist in 2008, researchers claim that because it developed new policy ideas and relationships among participants CALFED was not a failure– even if these innovations have yet to lead to tangible outcomes (Booher and Innes 2010; Lejano and Ingram 2009). Norgaard et al. (2009) say that, “CALFED science is not a partial failure (as claimed by the Little Hoover Commission review in 2005), but a very interesting, incomplete experiment”. Booher and Innes (2010) refer to CALFED as “governance for resilience” despite the fact that new species of fish from the Bay-Delta continue to be considered for Endangered Species listing. Why are we so reluctant to admit defeat? I propose there are three possible reasons.

First, we may be grasping at straws. It’s not every day that a set of 25 government agencies decides to heed governance scholars’ advice and attempt collaboration. Perhaps we are worried that if this groundbreaking effort is deemed an absolute failure it will either negate theoretical assumptions in our work or discredit future calls for enhanced collaboration.

Second, there may be a disconnect between the research and the system being researched due to selective fact-finding and an over-reliance on document analysis. For example, the Environmental Water Account is a CALFED innovation that is frequently used as an example of its successes. However, as a graduate student I was discouraged by a high level manager from using it as the focus of my dissertation because he didn’t think it was effective and because he didn’t think it would be around for much longer. Research by Booher and Innes (2010) and Lejano and Ingram (Lejano and Ingram 2009) finds the Environmental Water Account to be perhaps the best example of innovation by CALFED. But the successes they cite are primarily the program’s ability to reduce conflict, improve science and public participation, and generate new relationships. Researchers highlight small increases in water supply rather than a 2005 review panels’ finding that, “identifying the importance of EWA as a factor influencing populations of key species will be difficult because of the small amount of water in the EWA and the large variability in the hydrologic environment that influences the distributions and dynamics of species of concern. Is it enough that CALFED came up with the idea of an Environmental Water Account? Or is it only a successful innovation if it effectively increases fish populations in California rivers for 5 years (10 years? 15 years)?

Third, we may be over-emphasizing the importance of process in environmental problem solving. We may, as a result, lack the tools needed to evaluate the effectiveness of new collaborative regimes. Measuring the effect of CALFED on fish populations is much more difficult (if not impossible) than measuring the number of new relationships, the improvements in science, and participants’ satisfaction. However, if we let methods dictate our evaluation of one of the most central prescriptions of water governance research, collaboration, surely we are missing something.

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