Steering towards flood resilience with consensus-building: stakeholder facilitation and the case of the Chehalis River Basin

Next week, I’ll be at the American Water Resources Association (AWRA)’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon participating in a panel discussion on proactive flood and drought management in the United States.  I was contracted earlier this year to write the corresponding AWRA report (shameless plug alert!) profiling case studies of innovative flood and drought responses. This was a great opportunity for me to become familiar with some of the best models of water resources management across the country — real communities and regions doing it right — and a primary goal of the report is to provide examples of success that other vulnerable communities and management agencies can turn to for ideas in mitigating future water resource disasters.

As became apparent in learning more about these case studies, successful flood and drought management approaches require the coordination of a multitude of diverse entities and interests, including local, state, and federal agencies, and sometimes even competing stakeholder groups. More strikingly than any other, the history of the Chehalis River Basin teaches us about the critical importance of equitable and thoughtful process engaging these diverse entities and stakeholders in designing a comprehensive and effective mitigation strategy.

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin is an area spanning three counties, seven cities, and two federally-recognized tribal reservations in southwestern Washington State. In December 2007, the upper half of the Chehalis River flooded to a record high, shutting down portions of I-5, devastating homes, farms, and businesses, and creating $938 million in economic damages. Fourteen months later, in January 2009, it happened again: the second largest flood event on record occurred along the mainstem.

It’s not that this kind of severe flooding caught the region off guard; flooding occurs frequently in the Chehalis. In fact, since 1945, more than 800 feasibility studies exploring different structural flood mitigation approaches were conducted to address frequent flood events in the basin. Due to strong political differences and a lack of consensus on what mitigation measures to pursue, however, Chehalis-area leaders have been left for the past 80 years without a comprehensive strategy for mitigating outcomes like those suffered in the 2007 flood. Central to the decades-long debate was whether or not to install large water-retaining infrastructure, which could decimate  the basin’s salmon stocks — of great cultural and economic importance to the region’s tribes and recreational fishing industry.

Incited by these consecutive flood events to ensure concrete actions towards address the region’s vulnerability, state officials contracted the William D. Ruckelshaus Center (a collaborative policy and dispute resolution group,  jointly run by Washington State University and the University of Washington) to lead an independent review of flood mitigation alternatives. The Center facilitated conversations over the course of nine months between technical experts and basin leaders — including representatives from local cities, counties, agricultural industry, and tribes.  The result has been a broad consensus amongst these historically opposed stakeholders on the effects of flooding, the potential for various project alternatives  — not just a large dam — to reduce flood damage, and the necessity of pursuing a basin-wide approach.  A small work group, charged with recommending mitigation alternatives, has agreed that enhancement of aquatic species, particularly salmon runs, needs to be equal to flood damage reduction in the flood mitigation framework. Their recommendations include a suite of large-scale projects AND ecological enhancements through restoration and land use management in the floodplain.

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

While the process of evaluating the costs, benefits, and feasibility of mitigation alternatives is still underway, there is arguably more momentum then ever in getting Chehalis River Basin flood mitigation projects funded and rolled out. It is clear that integration of a third-party facilitator, establishing broad support for management decisions and identifying a shared vision for the basin across historic opponents,  was central in this shifting of gears. Other regions rife with conflict and political stalling over water management options have much to learn from this case history, and could avoid potential the economic and psychological damages of flood (and other water resource challenges) by turning to facilitated collaborative decision-making processes.

Check out the Chehalis River Basin case study and the full AWRA report, “Case Studies in Proactive Flood and Drought Management,” released August 2013, and the December 2012 William D. Ruckelshaus Center report on flood mitigation alternatives in the Chehalis.


Pending talks on Ethiopia’s Super Dam, or Why transboundary water transcends geographic scale


Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia
(Photo courtesy of Jialiang Gao via Wikicommon’s Creative Commons)

I like to think of transboundary water conflict and cooperation as something that occurs at all scales. While traditionally applied to the study of international basins, I think the discourse can also be useful in understanding intra-national, regional, and even sub-regional contexts, all of which exists across political and jurisdictional boundaries.

But let’s be respectful of tradition and start off our exploration of transboundary water conflict and cooperation with a timely international example. Today’s Circle of Blue newsletter features a piece by Joanne Yao on possible negotiations between Egypt and its upstream neighbor and Nile River-buddy Ethiopia. Since 2011, Ethiopia has been constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), one of the largest hydropower projects in the world. Its leaders hope it will incite a huge political and economic boom for the country. Egypt, on the other hand, is not as excited about the mega dam. It relies on the Nile for roughly 95 percent of its water supply and is worried about possible decreases in streamflow caused by the project. Thus far, the two countries have failed to enter into official negotiations to come to an agreement that would leave both feeling more secure.

This story is a familiar one, as all across the developing world more and more dams on internationally-flowing rivers are being built to accommodate a growing need for power generation and water for irrigation. As Yao writes,  a diplomatic strategy, designed to manage disagreements and ease tensions between these two countries, could “demonstrate how shared river resources have the potential to foster cooperation rather than confrontation.” So far, the opportunity is a missed one.

Both countries have shown past diplomatic efforts in the region’s battle for water security, however. Egypt has previously participated in the Nile Basin Initiative, a platform for discussing cooperation in the Nile River Basin established in 1999. Ethiopia is one of 10 signatories to the “Entebbe Agreement,” the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin (an agreement that Egypt will not sign without some key modifications). Yet on the topic of the Renaissance Dam, the two have yet to sit down and hash out their differences.

Yao notes that there is ample misinterpretation and misunderstanding surrounding the Nile’s flows and historical agreements, largely at the hands of false media reporting (and my sources suggest that she too is furthering this tradition…sorry Yao).  A “lack of shared knowledge” has fueled political mistrust and fear.

 “Rather… if the countries work together to identify development opportunities, including agreeing on operating rules for filling and managing the new GERD and any other future dams, this would minimize the harm and maximize the benefits for all.”

Of course, only time will tell what kind of diplomacy is in store for these countries, but Yao is optimistic that cooperation remains a real possibility. And I am too. As my former professor and transboundary water superstar Aaron Wolf teaches us, we have history to back us up! The thing that is certain now, however, is that these very themes — of mistrust, of currently unmet potential to identify opportunities to maximize benefits for all, of the lack of collaboration leaving would-be partners more vulnerable in the face of uncertain outcomes  — prevailed in my research of very small  communities and drinking water systems along  the Oregon Coast. The challenges we as humans face in governing water transcend geographic scale.

Read Yao’s  article here, and check out fellow OSU graduate student Jen Veilleux’s blog, all about her PhD research on this topic.


Welcome to my new blog, Partners Adapt! In this space, I’ll be exploring themes of STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT, REGIONAL PARTNERSHIPS, and TRANSBOUNDARY COLLABORATION in securing water resources around the world. Feel free to consider this a place for open discourse, and thanks for stopping by!