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New Research: Cultures of Water in the South Platte River Basin

A graduate student researcher affiliated with the NC CSC, Trevor Even, will be undertaking a new project entitled "Cultures of Water in the South Platte Basin," a social-ecological exploration of climate change adaptation planning. Even was awarded with funding from the James E. Ellis Humans and the Environment Scholarship for this project. 

Full title: Cultures of Water in the South Platte Basin: a framework for the integration of cultural dimensions of socio-ecological systems into climate change adaptation planning

Processes of stakeholder engagement and the incorporation of local perspectives and needs into resource management schemes requires the ability to understand, navigate, and influence the complex cultural worlds that human beings inhabit. Nevertheless, systematic approaches for gaining cultural knowledge at the scale of regional ecosystems are still in the process of maturation, with scientists in a variety of interdisciplinary fields continuing to voice the need for more robust research programs that investigate how cultural values, ideas, knowledge and beliefs shape interactions with ecosystems and systems of governance. Building upon long-standing anthropological methods and more recent efforts to assess the social vulnerability of communities to disaster events and climate change, the Cultures of Water project aims to develop a systematic framework for the exploration of community values, knowledge, and behaviors surrounding the use of natural resources. Specifically, it examines water – a critical component of any socio-ecological system – as it is used, reused, polluted, treated, exported, and evaporated in the South Platte River Basin, which covers most of northeastern Colorado and small parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. An area where rapid population growth and high sensitivity to climate change combine with intense cultural diversity and a complex management structure, the South Platte Basin faces a potentially volatile adaptation horizon in decades to come, with water governance systems already transforming as serious droughts and wildfire episodes reshape how local policy-makers, voters, managers, and consumers think about and value critical ecosystem services. Aimed at helping managers, advocates, policy makers, and every day citizens learn about the cultural systems at play in the complex world surrounding them, the Cultures of Water project therefore hopes to demonstrate both how current value systems play out in a social-ecological context, and how communities with differing values and views can better work together to ensure such systems’ sustainability.

Applying lessons learned in recent work with colleagues at the North Central Climate Science Center, the Cultures of Water project takes an integrated, social-ecological systems approach to project design, with the work being broken into four interconnected phases: digital (GIS and other data) infrastructure development, policy network analysis, ethnographic fieldwork, and a synthesis of the previous components through participatory agent-based modeling. Putting it simply, analyses of policy documents, demographic datasets, and existing hydrological science will be utilized to identify key stakeholder groups and actors for ethnographic inquiry and relevant areas of further investigation. Interviews with key water stakeholder groups – likely, in the South Platte, to include water utility managers, Federal land management employees, agriculturalists, urban developers, residential consumers, food processing companies, and environmental advocates (to name a few) – will then be used to inform decision making models for different major cultural systems operating across the region.  These models will then be incorporated into a basin scale agent-based model that incorporates differing climate, economic, and water use policy scenarios for use in climate change adaptation, sustainability, and disaster preparedness research.

Slated to begin in earnest in Spring 2018, the project was recently awarded with funds from the James E. Ellis Humans and the Environment Scholarship, an interdisciplinary honor established to support investigations of the interconnections between humans, ecosystems, and natural resources. For more information about the project, contact Trevor Even, at

: Confluence of Clear Creek and the South Platte River in Adams County, Colorado - Photo by Jeffrey Beall (CC BY-ND 2.0)