IRWM: How new collaborations change the management network

Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) has been forwarded as an innovative policy instrument for improving coordination in water management, often at the watershed level. The state of California in the U.S. has been experimenting with IRWM since 2008 when it based the California Integrated Regional Water Management Planning Act. My colleague Stephanie Pincetl and I decided to look at how the introduction of IRWM has changed the patterns of collaboration and management in southern California. The results will be published soon in Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy.

Building on the work of Mark Lubell and colleagues on the Ecology of Games, we were interested in examining the effects of IRWM in the context of an existing water management system, rather than as an isolated institutional arrangement.  Southern California is an ideal setting for this type of study because of the extraordinary complexity of water management institutions that existed before the introduction of IRWM: there are hundreds of water agencies of different sizes, a rapidly growing population and increasingly unreliable water supplies imported from northern California and the Colorado River. We wondered: does adding IRWM improve coordination or simply add another layer of complexity?

As a step toward answering this question we used network diagrams and analyses to evaluate the way the new IRWM sub-regions in southern California intersect with existing water management structures. We targeted groundwater basins, purchased water distributors, and watershed groups as examples of existing water management.

We found that the new IRWM sub-regions did not align well with any of the existing management structures. In the case of groundwater basins and purchased water distributors, water agencies that used the same groundwater basin or purchased water from the same distributor are now participating in different regional planning efforts. Only two of the six sub-regions had significant overlap with existing watershed management groups. Overall, the new IRWM sub-regions are about as central to the water management network as the existing watershed organizations were.

Interviews with water managers in southern California revealed that it is likely too soon to tell what kind of impacts IRWM will have in the region but there is some optimism. The success of the program will likely hinge on the continued support of the state.

This research demonstrates that regional collaborations like IRWM can change patterns of interaction in water management and that this change is likely to be heterogeneous across a given institutional landscape. The ability of IRWM to generate new interactions was highly variable among the six sub-regions. An interesting avenue for further research in this area would be to better understand the decisions made at the sub-region level about who participates and why. IRWM could prove to be the valuable water management tool that we think it can be but, as they say, the devil is in the details.


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