NSF‑funded research examines socio‑economics of flexible environmental rules

Closeup of a reservoir on the Columbia River.
As one of the most heavily impounded large rivers in the world, the Columbia provides an outstanding model system in which to investigate integrated biophysical and socioeconomic dynamics of river impoundment.

An interdisciplinary team of Washington State University researchers has just been awarded a $1.6 million grant to study under what conditions are individuals, groups and institutions likely to follow rules about the environment “to the letter” versus exercising discretion or making new rules. 

Closeup of John Harrison
John Harrison

“In the realm of science-based environmental management, it is useful to have flexibility to adapt to changing conditions, but it is also good to have clear rules as a basis for making investments toward long-term goals,” said John Harrison, Edward R. Meyer distinguished professor in the School of the Environment (SoE) at WSU Vancouver and principal investigator on the grant from the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program. 

“Climate and societal change are increasingly volatile, making it nearly impossible to envision every possible scenario — like what should be done when the unexpected happens? — or how often should rules be changed as our scientific understanding of environmental systems advances?”

Breaking the rules allows for flexibility to adapt to new conditions and knowledge, however, many decisions are made assuming that rules will be followed, so there is a cost to disregarding them, according to Harrison and project partners, Michael Brady in the School of Economic Sciences, Kirti Rajagopalan in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens and Stephen Bollens in SoE and Jonathan Yoder in the School of Economic Sciences.

Closeup of Michael Brady
Michael Brady

The researchers will use management of reservoir water in Washington’s Columbia River Basin as a test case to understand how the environment and society interact to shape rule-following, rule-bending and rule-reformulation behaviors, and how, in turn, these behaviors affect reservoir greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, harmful algal blooms and aquatic invasive species.

“In the past century, construction and management of more than a million dams and reservoirs worldwide has profoundly altered rivers and the nature of the human–river relationship,” Brady said. 

As one of the most heavily impounded large rivers in the world, the Columbia provides an outstanding model system in which to investigate integrated biophysical and socioeconomic dynamics of river impoundment.

 “This test case also provides an opportunity to gain deeper understanding of the nature of socio-environmental integration and to provide actionable insight,” Brady said.

The research will integrate fundamental understanding of river biogeochemistry and ecology, how to match the appropriate level of flexibility to environmental management challenges, and how the costs and benefits of discretion in environmental management influences economics.

Closeup of Kirti Rajagopalan
Kirti Rajagopalan

In pursuing these goals, the four-year project will generate new knowledge about the ways environmental conditions affect environmental management and vice versa.

The researchers will also communicate new, management-relevant understanding of interactions between dam and reservoir management, river function and feedbacks to water managers as well as to students, who will eventually become experts and decision makers. The project will include training for graduate and undergraduate students, education of K-12 teachers, and engagement of reservoir managers, stakeholders and the public.

“Our objective is to enhance society’s potential to sustainably manage rivers specifically, and natural resources more generally,” Rajagopalan said.

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