Climate change will force us to make tough decisions. Adaptive management can help.

In the face of climate change, it can be difficult to balance environmental, economic and community needs, but it’s a challenge we must overcome to adapt, survive and thrive.

To do this, professionals from multiple sectors across the globe are increasingly incorporating adaptive management techniques into resource planning for all kinds of essential ecosystems – from major watersheds like the Mississippi River Delta to high food production regions like the Corn Belt.

The lessons learned from past management decisions in these places will help shape resilience strategies for communities and industries around the world as they prepare for a new normal.

What is adaptive management and how does it work?

Adaptive management is an iterative decision-making process that builds and expands the resource managers’ knowledge base to overcome high levels of uncertainty and variability over time. The process is built around a set of predetermined goals that support the needs of species, industries and people, and are laid out in a hierarchy with associated management actions that vary depending on present and future conditions.

Adaptive Management wheel. Credit: ESSA Technologies, Ltd.

This management strategy is especially useful for large-scale projects involving infrastructure, like water control structures, because of the inherent flexibility to adjust operations based on real-time monitoring and evaluation of conditions. Key data like this are essential to adaptive management effectiveness, since it is a continual learning process.

Adaptive management strives to achieve the primary goals while minimizing negative impacts and maximizing overall benefits, with an end result of management actions best suited to the environment as it changes over time.

How are adaptive management goals determined?

Robust adaptive management takes into account multiple perspectives by bringing a variety of stakeholders, agencies, scientists and engineers to the table early on to agree on goals, objectives and decision-making processes.

By encouraging consensus through collaborative governance structures, adaptive management can support ecological, economic and community needs simultaneously.

Additionally, an independent scientific review panel can help promote trust in the process and support the science behind decision-making.How adaptive management can help us increase resilience in the face of a changing climate. Click To Tweet

River basin and watershed managers around the country are already using adaptive management to set goals and address various resource management needs. One example is the Missouri River Adaptive Management Plan, which balances the needs of three federally-listed threatened and endangered species – the pallid sturgeon, the interior least tern and the Northern Great Plains piping plover – along with cultural and economic uses of the river for agriculture, navigation, energy, recreation and water supply.

An example from Louisiana

Louisiana is beginning to develop an adaptive management plan for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a large-scale coastal restoration project. The plan will be a crucial guidebook to effective operations of the sediment diversion in the future.

Photo Credit: Karen A. Westphal, Audubon Louisiana

The sediment diversion is being constructed in an already dynamic and ever-changing deltaic environment with innate uncertainties. But climate change and sea level rise add a layer of complexity to understanding the future of the Louisiana coast, both with and without the construction and operation of sediment diversions.

In Louisiana, there is no time to wait for perfect data, which is impossible to achieve. But adaptive management allows practitioners to take much needed action today while building a knowledge base for future decision-making, ensuring the overall goals for building and sustaining land are achieved, while also factoring in the needs of communities, fisheries, navigation, and other economic and social concerns.

As climate change continues to drive more rapid changes worldwide, adaptive management will become an increasingly imperative strategy for balancing multiple needs and maximizing environmental, economic and community resilience.

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  1. Tracy Kuhns
    Posted August 26, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I have been involved in environmental protection issues for more than 30 years. I have 5 children and 17 grandchild and want to do everything I can to leave behind a safer, cleaner, healthy environment for them. I call bull shit on this! Adaptive management and resiliency are another way of government and organizations saying they know what is best for communities they do not live and work in! I can not claim to know what is best for someone who lives, works and raises their family in an urban, inland, or high end coastal community and would not presume to tell them they just have to accept what I think is best for them. Mid-Barataria Diversion is a prime example of government, some scientists, EDF and other environmental organizations who do not live in the community. We have all attended working group, public meetings and comment hearings put on by local and federal agencies that are controlled by the people supporting a project. The truth is, this is what is going on in Louisiana with their adaptive management pla. Get a few stakeholders to a meeting, let them say their piece then do what you have already planned to do anyway. Check off the boxes. The truth is our communities have been denied the same protections from sea level raise as communities just 2 miles to the north of us. The truth is the Mid-Barataria Diversion will NOT build land for 20+ years if ever, because the sediment is naturally trying to go down the Atchafalaya. It’s a giant experiment. The truth is, it is NOT a coastal restoration project, they are calling it an infrastructure project to get around environmental laws. The truth is, in order to build this experimental, destructive, diversion and send 75,000 CFS of polluted Mississippi River water into one of our nations largested essential fish habitats the government, EDF and other environmental groups have gotten President Trump to sign an executive order to circumvent the Marine Mammal Protection Act for these diversions, they have gotten congress to tie the hands of Nation Marine Fisheries and ordered them to expedite the permitting process and they are trying to circumvent any environmental law that they know would stop these projects from being build. Using BP fine money to build a project that will further harm the fisheries, marine mammals, people and communities most heavily impacted by the BP spill is outrageous! If you truly care about the environment, tell EDF to stop supporting the Mid-Barataria and other large diversions. Tell them to help the local people, who will be most affected, to receive equal protection under the law!

    • Natalie Peyronnin
      Posted August 29, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Dear Ms. Kuhns,

      In your comment on adaptive management, you mention your children and grandchildren, and your 30-plus years of work to protect the environment. I appreciate that – it’s clear to me that you and I share a strong stake in the future of our coast.

      At the same time, it’s clear that you and I don’t see adaptive management in the same way at all. The goal of adaptive management in coastal restoration is to gather and use the best knowledge available on an ongoing basis and use that learning to make the best ongoing decisions to manage our coastal resources. Adaptive management at its best involves government, scientists and communities in reviewing new information and making decisions together. Far from being a way to “tell communities what is best for them,” adaptive management involves reaching out to stakeholders, not pushing them away.

      In the case of the Mid Barataria Sediment Diversion (MBSD), an adaptive management plan would become effective after construction, as the sediment diversion is being operated, as a way of balancing operations to nourish sediment-starved marshes while also managing and maintaining a robustly productive estuarine ecosystem. Diversions are not an experiment, as we have extensive studies over the last 20-plus years and numerous on-the-ground examples – however, as you well know, in a dynamic and changing delta, we have to have a process that allows us to continually measure, and respond, to what is going on in the system. That’s why adaptive management is so important to expand our collective knowledge base and learn over time.

      Adaptive management plans will be developed as part of the environmental review process. There is a lot of misinformation out there about what will be required as a part of this process, but the rules for the environment review process around Mid-Barataria are exactly the same as every other project that requires such review. What the current and previous federal administrations have agreed to do is cooperate and coordinate extensively, so that the full process could potentially be completed in less time. Even with a 3-year review process, when you add construction time, we’re probably 7-9 years away from having an operating sediment diversion. Meanwhile, our coast continues to deteriorate. That’s why it’s important to try all we can to find efficiencies in the process wherever possible.

      What is somewhat different is that Congress passed a legislative provision that included a waiver for this project from some requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as they did not make sense when applied to the urgency of this project in the rapidly-deteriorating landscape in coastal Louisiana. The state is still required to consult with NOAA and monitor and take actions to minimize project impacts to bottlenose dolphins, the marine mammal species of concern in this circumstance. Studies and data collection are already underway that will provide a baseline understanding against which to measure project impacts, if any, and the adaptive management plan will allow us to learn and adapt to this information in the future.

      Tracy, we all value meaningful engagement and open and transparent processes. That is a priority for our team. We are working every day to make the processes better than they were yesterday. We can make current and future processes as good as they should be, and that is an essential component of adaptive management.