Assessing System Resilience and Ecosystem Services in Large River Basins: A Case Study of the Columbia

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Jan 01, 2014
B. Cosens and A. Premier



The economic life and the health of society depend on the services provided by large river basins. Throughout the world, widespread development and modification of river basins has resulted in highly stressed ecosystems and societal dependence on engineered services (i.e. the use of infrastructure such as dams and diversions to maximize certain uses of the river) that may be reaching their maximum capability in delivery. These water-based social-ecological systems (SES) are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The complexity of river basins is reflected not only in the biophysical system and the provisioning of ecosystem services, but in societal interaction with these systems, particularly water governance. In the face of change, water governance must become adaptive. Improvement in the capacity of these social-ecological systems to adapt through changes in governance begins with understanding the system-wide effects of past changes and the evolution of social interaction with the basin’s ecological system. As part of the Adaptive Water Governance Project, this article explores the resilience of the Columbia River Basin social-ecological system to climate change. It begins with an overview of its theoretical background and methodology, and proceeds to a basin characterization. The article then presents a resilience assessment of the basin following methods developed by Walker and Salt and by the Resilience Alliance, but modified to include ecosystem services concepts as a means to discuss system properties. This study takes place in the face of a key window of opportunity for change brought about by expiration of certain provisions of a Treaty between the United States and Canada, and the review process both countries have begun. Although focused on system-wide perturbation resulting from climate change as a thought experiment, this article will view that change in light of this current window of opportunity.

Read the full article in the Idaho Law Review, Natural Resources and Environmental Law Edition.

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