Restored river channel and backfilled C-38 canal in the Kissimmee River Basin. Credit: JaxStrong, CC BY 2.0
Source: Water Resources Research

Humans are now more than ever active participants, rather than passive bystanders, in the natural hydrologic system. To assist with making long-term strategic decisions about water management within this new context, sociohydrologists are developing models that incorporate social processes into their study of water use. Coupling these very different systems and their feedbacks, however, is challenging; despite recent studies that highlight the importance of the trends in our changing societal values, these variables have yet to be fully incorporated into human-water system models.

To address this gap, Chen et al. developed a simple conceptual model that simulates the sociohydrologic interactions in Florida’s Kissimmee River Basin from 1948 to 2012. In response to extensive flooding there, the community decided in the 1960s to channelize downstream portions of the river. By the 1990s, however, a shift in priorities led to the ongoing restoration of both the river and the affected wetlands.

The researchers hypothesized that these expensive modifications resulted from changing societal values as well as a disparity in power between the more numerous and wealthier upstream urban residents—who prioritized the restoration of wetlands—and the more rural downstream residents, who prioritized protection from floods. To simulate this complexity, the team included a “community sensitivity variable” in this system that quantifies the differences between the two portions of the basin, as well as the two-way environmental and societal feedbacks.

After calibrating the model to reflect the basin’s historic trends, the researchers incorporated projected population data to predict changes in this basin from 2013 to 2032. Under a constant-precipitation scenario, the results show that over the next couple of decades the wetlands will continue to recover and the community sensitivity will return to neutral. Should rainfall intensify by 10%, as some climate change scenarios suggest, the model predicts that the community will again favor flood protection. Additional scenarios predict that rapid population growth in upstream areas will increase concern about the health of wetlands, whereas fast downstream population growth will result in increased concerns about flooding.

This study demonstrates the potential of sociohydrologic models to describe complex interactions using straightforward concepts and simple mathematical equations. These models have the potential to become important planning tools to minimize the unintended and expensive consequences of changing societal preferences. (Water Resources Research, doi:10.1002/2015WR018194, 2016)

—Terri Cook, Freelance Writer

Citation: Cook, T. (2016), Predicting changing human preferences in water basin management, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO046787. Published on 25 February 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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