Data Management: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The World Economic Forum has ranked Global Risks for 2018. With the single exception of cyber-security, water is a key factor in the seven other top-ranked high-impact and high-likelihood risks. The rank order of the risks changes from year to year but it’s increasingly apparent that, in the 21st century, both risks and opportunities are strongly associated with water. The good news is that the likelihood of these risks can be reduced, the impacts mitigated, and opportunities optimized by effective water resources management. However, one interpretation of the Global Risks report is that we are less effective in water resources management than we are in managing any other sector from which threats to the global economy can arise.

Why aren’t we more effective in water resources management?

For water resources management to be effective, it has to provide direction that is a) useful; and b) has stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholder buy-in is often a non-starter. Stakeholders include all upstream and downstream beneficiaries of the water supply as well as all indirect beneficiaries of the ecosystem services provided by the flow of water through the landscape. Stakeholder representation is, typically, fragmented by arbitrary political boundaries partitioning watersheds, multiple levels of government within each jurisdiction, diverse departments with focused responsibilities within each level of government, various economic lobby groups, and special interest groups.

OK, stakeholder buy-in is hard but how hard can it be to come up with useful direction? Back in the good old days of the 20th century, useful direction was based on simplifying assumptions. The climate was assumed to be stationary and it was assumed that the social/political/economic landscape was secure. That was before we accepted the new reality of climate change and the disruptive effects of emerging technologies. These assumptions that the recent past was a reliable predictor of the future resulted in watershed planning that could be scheduled years in advance to meet anticipated changes in requirements.

Welcome to the 21st century. The only thing we know for certain is that the future will look nothing like the past.

A water management plan now needs to be more than a time-stamped schedule of anticipated requirements and proactive interventions. A plan for the 21st century must be adaptive to uncertainties. We can’t adequately predict requirements and many interventions that will be useful haven’t been invented yet.

A good plan is therefore the specification of a system that allows you to reliably measure and monitor reality,  understand the effects of change at all relevant spatial and temporal scales, and then to objectively evaluate the efficacy of competing solutions in this updated context. Water monitoring activities must be strategically designed to enable evidence-based decision making in a changing world.

A good data management system exposes the results of water monitoring to all stakeholders. Mutual trust is built from such transparency. Good data reliably expose any overuse, misuse, or abuse of the shared resource. A single source of “truth” is essential to building stakeholder awareness, engagement, and shared commitment to watershed-scale directed action.

A good data management system provides timely, trusted, and relevant information about variability in water supply and water quality. With better data, there are more choices for adaptive water management. Both “grey” and “green” solutions are needed but the best performance and economy are realized when long data records are used for the design of “grey” solutions and when timely, relevant data are used for agile management of “green” solutions.

Good decisions are constructed from good data. Good data builds trust. Good data enables resiliency in a changing world.

Good data management will bridge the gap from the data we collect to the good data we need.


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One response to “Data Management: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters”

  1. Evan Baddock May 3, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks Stu. Great photo by the way!

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