LEEF Chair in Water Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability

Program of Research

Some Preliminary Thoughts ...

An important element in being successful as an academic researcher is having a coherent research program.  While the ability to follow a particular track depends on funding and interested research partners (esp. graduate students), it is important to have in mind the core program.  Thus, both to help myself keep focus and to give potential graduate students some idea of where they will get the most support from me, I've listed a collection of research questions that I hope to find the time to work on.

I think it is safe to say that I am 'pathologically curious', which, according to V. S. Ramachandran, is one of the defining characteristics of a scientist.  To quote:

What is the single most important quality that suits you for a career in science? ... I would argue that you need to be obsessively, passionately curious. Or, as Peter Medawar once said, you need to "experience physical discomfort when there is incomprehension." Curiosity needs to dominate your life (V.S. Ramachandran (2004), "The Making of a Scientist", in John Brockman (ed) Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, Vintage Books: New York).

I am indebted to another pathologically curious individual who came to me to talk about potential graduate research projects for the term. This pathology is a problem, because it is very easy to become diverted. Thus, it is important to try and keep somewhat focused on the core research program. However, diversions themselves are also part of the fun of being a researcher.

If your curiosity also tends towards the pathological, and if you are independent and highly self-motivated, then there may be some scope for working together. I am partial to projects that build on the research ideas that follow, but am not limited by that.


The Okanagan is a region in transition. For thousands of years it was home to the Syilx people. A couple of hundred years ago European settlers arrived bringing with them different cultures and practices. Since then the Okanagan has continued to attract immigrants from around the world, with the economy and ecology of the basin evolving in response.

Over the thousands of years that the Syilx people lived here, they developed a balanced and sustainable relationship with the environment. This relationship involved relatively limited alteration of natural cycles, with the Syilx economy essentially existing as part of the ecological processes that dominated the area. Peoples and communities moved and traded to take advantage of the different natural abundances that existed through the Okanagan and the larger region[1]. European settlers brought with them a culture and technologies more consistent with modifying natural processes, and through the development of irrigated agriculture transformed the Okanagan economy[2]. Immigration and economic transformation continue, with the present economy largely dependent on continued immigration, particularly lifestyle migrants bringing wealth to the region.

The history of human settlement in the Okanagan has left us with a legacy of alternations to the environment – including built infrastructure – and of human institutions that regulate our relationship with that environment. Some of these alternations lock us into relationships with the environment that are hard to change. Some of the human institutions similarly lock us into relationships with each other that perpetuate ways we collectively interact with the environment and with each other that are possibly even more difficult to change. However, our ways of relating to the environment and to each other must change if we are to protect that which we value about the Okanagan and adapt to the continued arrival of new immigrants, global economic forces, evolving attitudes and cultures, and a changing climate.

The Advisory Committee

The official start of LEEF chair at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia was the first of January 2012. However, the contract itself was not finalized until several months later, and the first meeting of the advisory committee to the chair did not occur until November 26, 2012. While work has been progressing on a number of projects related to the area of research consistent with the chair, a more structured research plan only seemed appropriate after the advisory committee had been struck and had an opportunity to share some of their perspectives on Okanagan water issues.

The advisory committee identified a number of important issues relevant to Okanagan water management, and water management more generally. These are:

  • Determining the impact of metering water use.
  • Assessing the role of building codes on water conservation.
  • What is the impact of urban sprawl on water use and conservation?
  • What is the cost effectiveness of treating all water to drinking water standards, even that which is used for irrigation (more than half).
  • What is the role of virtual water? Can we identify the lowest value water uses (e.g. forage crops) and replace these with virtual water (importing forage)?
  • What are the economic impacts of climate change for the valley? How can we adapt and/or become more resilient to these changes?
  • What is the cost effectiveness of the drinking water standards we now require? How are these costs affected by conflicting regulations?
  • How can we change human behavior in relation to water? Is there a parallel with changing attitudes towards littering and smoking?
  • What is the role of agriculture in water use and water conservation? What are the implications of the ALR for water allocation (in fairness terms, in economic terms)? What is the impact of the ALR on water use?
  • Is there a role for water reuse? In the home? At larger scales? Is it cost effective? How do present regulations interact with this option?
  • What is the role of groundwater in the Okanagan? How will this be affected by continued changes in the valley and climate change?

Two broad themes generally unite these points. One is that we lack solid information on the economics of water use in the Okanagan, and the impact of changing conditions on our valley economy. This is a challenge in many places, where we know a lot more about the hydrology of the watersheds we live in than we do about the economic and social forces that shape the way that people use water. The second is that economics does not capture all of the values that water generates. The strong opinions expressed around the role of agriculture and the expressed desire to understand motivators of behavior both demonstrate this issue area. Building on this last issue area and the notable absence of any sense that economics should be the key driver of water allocation decisions, another important issue area is water governance. There are clear challenges in how we allocate our water, and there is a need to develop institutions that enable us to face the challenge of reallocating water between uses in a way that gives space for all the different ways we value water.

Research Theme Areas

As outlined above, there are three broad theme areas that seem to emerge from the issues raised by the advisory committee members. In no particular order, these are (a) develop a better understanding of the relationship between water and the economy of the Okanagan; (b) develop a better understanding of the value of water in its various uses, many of which are not reflected in monetary transactions; and (c) identifying ways to improve water governance in the Okanagan. Of course, many of these themes are also relevant elsewhere in the world, and participating in research on similar themes in other parts of the world can bring new insights to the Okanagan. There is also significant overlap across these themes; they are not independent.

Water and the Okanagan Economy

Water clearly plays an important part in the Okanagan economy. It is a critical input for agricultural activities, which include orcharding and wine production, as well as activities such as ranching that are less prominent on the valley floor. Indirectly it is also very important for tourism, as the lake in the summer and the ski slopes in the winter rely on water for their attraction. Several projects and/or sub-projects follow from this theme.

  1. Development of a basin level coupled economic and hydrologic model of the Okanagan watershed. This would be a natural continuation of the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s Supply and Demand project.
    1. Explore the impact for overall economic activity in the valley of changing where water is used and for what activities. By extension, calculate the impacts on those affected by such changes.
    2. Explore the impact of regulations such as an agricultural water reserve, minimum stream flow requirements, changes to the first in time, first in right rule, etc. on overall valley economic activity, and impacts on specific places and user groups.
    3. Explore the implications of extreme weather events (drought, etc.), climate trends and population change on the overall economy of the Okanagan valley under ‘business as usual’ policies and innovative policies that enhance the adaptability to these stressors.
  2. Develop one or several high resolution (land parcel scale) models of a water purveyor’s service area.
    1. Estimate the allocation of water among water users that maximizes overall production value for the system, compared to the allocation rules in place, or typical for systems in the valley.
    2. Explore policy tools that could move the allocation closer to that which maximizes production value without leaving anyone worse off.
    3. Explore the impact of extreme events (droughts, etc.) and of long term climate trends on the maximum production value and the production value resulting from rules in place.
    4. Explore policy tools that can enhance flexibility in the face of extreme events and climate change.
    5. Explore the implications of population change and the changing balance between agricultural and residential water users on the allocation of water and the role of different policy options on the management of these changes.
  3. Develop water system models that can assess the risks from water quality issues.
    1. Assess the costs and benefits of conventional water treatment compared to more enhanced treatment.
    2. Integrate climate change and population growth to identify the optimal timing of investments in system improvements and the net benefits of doing so.
  4. Develop a model that can estimate the economic contribution of groundwater in the Okanagan, incorporating the connections between groundwater and surface water.
    1. Explore the role that groundwater does play and can play as a buffer during times of drought.
    2. Explore the impact of current groundwater regulation on groundwater extractions, both from a theory and model based perspective, and using observational data.
    3. Examine how groundwater development has responded to potential regulatory changes, and explore how different grandfathering approaches will impact water users and others indirectly affected by changing groundwater extraction.

The core modeling work for these projects requires a high level of technical skill, particularly in the area of computer modeling. These foundational elements will require collaborations with technical experts, either as post-doctoral fellows who will work in Kelowna, or with researchers based either at other universities or professionals outside of the university. Once the models have been constructed master’s students and/or doctoral students can refine them and/or run scenarios to explore many of the derived research questions.

The Value Contributed by Water

The contribution water makes to the value of production such as bins of apples or bottles of wine is easy to measure. However, many things that water provides do not have such an easy to identify monetary signature. This is the distinction between the price we pay for things we buy that require water and the value that using water and those things has for us. The ‘best’ way to divide our supply of water between the uses to which that water can be put need not be consistent with that which maximizes the value of the goods produced. Determining the best use therefore requires measuring what the value contributed by water is.

  1. Water put aside for the environment generates ecological goods and services. Typically only a fraction of these ecological goods and services have a clear market signature.
    1. Identify and undertake literature based evaluations of important ecological goods and services in the Okanagan. I am presently involved in two such studies (January 2013), one looking at the value of ecological goods and services provided by Mission Creek and a second looking at the value of ecological goods and services provided by a section of the Okanagan river.
    2. Undertake primary research to fill gaps in our knowledge about the value of ecological goods and services which are unique to the Okanagan and/or where there is good reason to expect values from the literature to not do a good job of representing the Okanagan.
  2. Water provided for agriculture enables us to grow crops in the Okanagan. Agriculture provides many benefits beyond the crops produced, and many of these values do not have a clear market signature. Absent a clear market signature, Okanagan farmers are typically not being paid for many of the things that they provide to the Okanagan.
    1. The Okanagan landscape – orchards and vineyards between semiarid slopes and the blue of the lakes – is a signature feature of the Okanagan. How much does this landscape contribute to the quality of life of Okanagan residents? How much worse off would they be if that landscape were changed towards more natural vegetation or towards more urban development?
    2. Food security is often put forward as one of the benefits of protecting agricultural land. What is food security worth? How much are people willing to pay to protect the ability to produce food locally? How much individually and how much collectively?
    3. The agricultural land reserve limits what agricultural land can be used for. If it is farmed, then it requires irrigation. What are we willing to pay to continue protecting land in the ALR? What is the loss farmers face because they cannot develop their land? What are the uses of agricultural land that people value compared to that which policy encourages?
  3. There is little financial reason to conserve water, particularly in those parts of the valley where households do not pay for water based on the volume they use. However, some people are very attentive to water conservation while others are not.
    1. Some recent research explores the impact of different messages on water conservation behavior. Work in cooperation with local water providers to build on this work and identify effective methods to encourage water conservation.
    2. Explore the role of peer influence, such as neighbours and/or identified water conservation champions for encouraging greater water conservation.
    3. Examine the extent to which conservation motivations are sabotaged by observing situations where water is being wasted and/or the belief that others are wasting water.
    4. Explore what forms of financial incentives are most effective, and how those incentives need to be matched with information campaigns to maximize conservation success.

Valuation research that relies on secondary sources, known as benefit transfer, is well within the scope of good master’s students, and for smaller projects, can even form part of a fourth year undergraduate project. The collection of primary data requires careful design of data collection protocols, and the analysis of the collected data often requires intense statistical work. Particular research questions can be addressed by doctoral students, while coordination and integration of several valuation research questions is best conducted by a postdoctoral fellow.

Governance and Water

Governance can be defined as “the use of institutions, structures of authority and even collaboration to allocate resources and coordinate or control activity in society or the economy.”[3] Governance of water is about the practical reconciliation of the competing demands for water. The research activities outlined above can play an important part in improving water governance if they are used to engage people with the decision challenges we face. Research related to water governance will therefore focus on ways to engage people with these decision challenges, and engaging decision makers with those affected by their decisions. The aim of this work will be to arrive at decisions and to identify decision processes that work towards good governance.

  1. Using economic model results and nonmarket valuation results, determine the distribution of the impacts of policy changes.
    1. How are the impacts of policy changes distributed among politically influential stakeholders?
    2. How has the distribution of impacts been changing over time, particularly as a result of immigration and economic change?
    3. Are there ‘breakpoints’ where an unequal distribution of impacts becomes politically unsustainable and policy change follows?
  2. Aboriginal peoples lived in the Okanagan, and many other places in Canada and around the world, prior to the establishment of the contemporary state. In many cases, including in the Okanagan, systems of laws and rights were established without due recognition of the rights of the historic inhabitants, or even with any agreement dividing authority between aboriginal peoples and more recent settlers.
    1. What are the aboriginal rights and title in the Okanagan, particularly with respect to water? How can these rights be understood in relation to more conventional understandings of rights and title?
    2. How do aboriginal use rights (hunt, fish, gather), which extend over large geographic areas, interact with non-aboriginal property rights that embody multiple entitlements over a limited geographic area?
    3. What mutual obligations are generated by the intersection of aboriginal rights and non-aboriginal rights?
    4. What institutions and governance mechanisms can be developed that recognize aboriginal and non-aboriginal rights, and that leads to mutually beneficial resource management?
  3. Practically, governance is a balance between formal and informal arrangements, with the balance reflecting power dynamics and the relative effectiveness of the different possible arrangements. Good governance achieves the ‘best’ mix of these arrangements.
    1. For one or more water purveyors, measure in detail the formal and informal arrangements that determine how water is used. How have these arrangements been changing over time? How are these results different from the ‘optimum’ identified by a numerical model of the purveyor?
    2. Water licences and environmental laws create obligations on water users. However, enforcement is often weak and patchy, and enforcement actions initiated within a community can damage important social relationships. How are disputes about water allocation and use managed by small communities? Can effective means be found to take advantage of informal mechanisms? Are formal regulations a threat to effective informal local water governance?
    3. Are informal governance arrangements the most effective way to manage conflict between aboriginal and non-aboriginal rights to water?

Work on governance is inherently multidisciplinary. There are many different, typically context specific, definitions of good governance. They typically contain some variation of the themes accountability, participation, transparency, and predictability.[4] Good governance has at least as much to do with process as it does with outcomes. This area in particular I expect to require cooperation with people from a variety of disciplines. Projects would typically require at least a master’s level student, and some projects in this area would be suitable for a Ph.D. student.

[1] http://www.syilx.org/who-we-are/the-syilx-people/

[2] Wilson, Kenneth Wayne. 1989. Irrigating the Okanagan. Master’s these, The University of British Columbia. http://www.livinglandscapes.bc.ca/thomp-ok/irrigating-of-okanagan/contents.html

[3] Bell, Stephen, 2002. Economic Governance and Institutional Dynamics, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

[4] International Fund for Agricultural Development, 1999. Good Governance: An Overview. Executive Board, 67th Session. http://www.ifad.org/gbdocs/eb/67/e/EB-99-67-INF-4.pdf

Last reviewed shim6/12/2013 3:33:18 PM