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Water Matters
Water Matters

Here in Oregon and throughout much of the Western U.S., balancing competing demands for limited water supplies is a complex and often contentious process carried out by a dizzying array of local, state, and federal agencies, many of which have distinctive mandates and purviews.

“Water management is a wicked public policy problem,” said Portland State University PhD student Jackie Dingfelder. “Wicked in that the complexity, scale, and persistence of the challenges faced by the agencies charged with meeting water quality and quantity demands of stakeholders can defy resolution.”

Dingfelder is a student in PSU’s Hatfield School of Government. In the past, she served as a policy director under former Portland mayor Charlie Hales. And before that Dingfelder was a member of the Oregon State Senate and the Oregon House of Representatives, respectively. She has over thirty years of professional experience in environmental planning and policy in the public and nonprofit sectors. At PSU, Dingfelder’s research interests are in studying how science, policy, and government intersect and inform processes that transform data and theory into practice.

According to Dingfelder, a new approach to water resource management has surfaced over the last two decades. This approach aims to overcome the wicked public policy problems associated with outdated, multiagency, command-and-control-style management schemes common in the Western U.S. Called Integrated Water Resource Management, it encourages resource managers, government officials, private industry, agricultural and commercial interest groups, and the public to work together to develop a bottom-up management framework that protects water quality, optimizes supply, and assures equitable distribution.

During her legislative career, Dingfelder was directly involved in Oregon’s successful efforts to adopt and implement a version of an integrated water resource management strategy that went into effect in 2012. In 2016, as a student at PSU, she received a Fulbright Ian Axford (New Zealand) Fellowship in Public Policy that provided an opportunity to live and work in New Zealand for seven months while studying that country’s implementation of integrated water resource management reforms.

“As a state legislator, I learned a lot about bringing seemingly disparate groups with widely varying perspectives and concerns into the process of improving water management practices. And that got me interested in how other countries were approaching integrated water management,” said Dingfelder. “When I learned of the Ian Axford Fellowship opportunity, I thought I could apply my past experiences in government to an analysis of the freshwater management reforms New Zealand had undertaken since 2009 that could provide policymakers and practitioners on both sides of the Pacific insights into the implementation of an integrated water resource management strategy.”

Dingfelder spent the latter half of 2016 embedded with New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment, the agency responsible for providing guidance and direction to regional councils that create water management plans. She also worked closely with Victoria University’s School of Government in Wellington. Her research goal was to gain a better understanding of New Zealand’s national and regional approaches to integrated water resource management decision-making. Dingfelder accomplished this goal by focusing her research on New Zealand’s collaborative water resource planning process at national and regional levels. She also assessed how the inclusion of New Zealand’s large indigenous Māori population in the collaborative water planning process was being implemented in three regional water districts on the North Island. Dingfelder’s final report, “New Zealand’s Approach to Integrated Freshwater Management with a Focus on Indigenous Interests,” was published by Fulbright New Zealand.

According to Ms. Dingfelder, New Zealand’s approach to freshwater management is quite different from approaches common in Oregon and the Western U.S. In New Zealand, for instance, catchment areas, or watersheds, form natural boundaries of water districts. In Oregon, on the other hand, as is the case in many other regions in the Western U.S., water districts are drawn along political lines that consider among other factors priority rights over freshwater supplies and often overlap catchment areas. As a result, multiple water districts in Oregon often share the responsibility (and the associated challenges) of managing a single watershed, maintaining water quality, and delegating water resources to stakeholders, whereas in New Zealand a single district is responsible for the management of their entire catchment area.

Dingfelder also noted a difference in management structures. Whereas Oregon’s freshwater resources are managed from the top down with rules and regulations coming from federal, state, regional, and municipal agencies, New Zealand has adopted a bottom-up approach in which a decentralized planning structure allows for decision-making at the local level by regional councils with members representing the water management community, the public, and the indigenous Māori population.

“Creating a water resource management structure that brings in members of the Māori community and makes space for their perspectives and traditions is an innovative step,” Dingfelder said. “Traditionally, water planning is very top-down; dominated by scientists and engineers, and data-driven. New Zealand has tilted that model on its side by adopting an integrated strategy that’s collaborative, place-based, and merges cultural and community priorities with scientific data at the watershed scale. It’s a unique lens through which to view water resource management and it creates mutual learning opportunities for scientists, engineers, policymakers, and the public (including the Māori population) to participate in. It’s a process I think we could apply to natural resource planning in the Western U.S.”

Having studied New Zealand’s approach to freshwater reforms and integrated water resource management strategy, Dingfelder noted that collaborative decision-making like that practiced at the catchment level in New Zealand requires partnerships with strong foundations, investments of time and resources to build the capacity of all parties involved to effectively participate in the planning process, and a willingness to be open to diverse worldviews. Her work will inform freshwater resource managers in New Zealand as they continue to move forward with the implementation of their integrated water resource management plan and could prove useful here in Oregon as the state begins updating its water resource management strategy in 2017.

“It takes much longer to bring a group together, educate them, and walk them through the collaborative process than to just go to the council, have planners write a plan, get feedback from administrators and enact policy, which is how we’ve historically done things in Oregon,” Dingfelder said. “But I think it’s worth the effort to bring everyone together to manage our freshwater systems from the bottom up. And that’s already going on to a certain degree in cities like Portland that do a fairly decent job gathering community input on policy matters. But I think we could do better at all levels of government when it comes to including communities in the planning process. I think the lessons I learned from studying New Zealand’s freshwater reforms could help guide efforts to improve collaborative resource management in Oregon.”