Study offers new approach for Willamette River drought fixes

Timing and location are vital considerations in managing drought risks that are rising along Oregon’s Willamette River because of a changing climate, researchers conclude in a newly published study.

Efforts to provide for agricultural, urban and environmental needs along the river could be enhanced if they are implemented upstream in advance of projected water shortages, a six-member team from five institutions, including the University of Oregon, reported in the July 15 issue of the journal Nature Sustainability.

Adell Amos, UO School of Law, by the Willamette River For the study — led by Oregon State University economist William Jaeger — Adell Amos, the UO’s Clayton R. Hess Professor of Law and associate dean for academic affairs in the UO School of Law, focused on the integration of water law and policy for comprehensive modeling that pulls from both human and natural systems.

Using a simulated model based on conditions similar to those that occurred in 2015, the researchers evaluated the effectiveness of potential state and federal water conservation policies for meeting water demands for cities and farms, and for meeting the minimum water flow required for threatened and endangered fish species.

While the range of policies studied would help conserve water, they would fall short of mitigating most of the shortages because they begin in the wrong months or downstream of trouble spots, Jaeger said. The findings should have relevance in other basins that will face droughts and will want to anticipate their mitigation options, he added.

As part of her contributions, Amos worked with a team of six law fellows from the UO’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center. The project provided hands-on experience for the students, said Amos, a professor of water law and federal administrative law.

“The work of the legal research team was an important piece of this study, and the students were excited to be a part of the process,” she said. “We helped develop a model that could be responsive to changes in the exercise of discretionary authorities that state and federal agencies have to respond to water scarcity.”

The research team used a computer model called Willamette Envision, an integrative tool that helps identify water systems of communities and ecosystems that are vulnerable to shortages and specifies how they can best be adapted.

The approach allows the simulation of processes that affect the distribution, movement, supply and demand for water in the basin. In this case, researchers included 189 landscape attributes from economics, land use, law, hydrology, climate and vegetation in their analysis.

“In this combined larger effort, the research team highlighted the importance of deploying policy interventions in a thoughtful and proactive way rather than as a reactionary response to increasing cycles of drought,” Amos said.

The modeling, she said, provides the capacity to evaluate discretionary agency authority.

“Now decisionmakers have a tool to help them address problems before they arise, rather than as a reaction to drought conditions, by highlighting when and where interventions are most effective,” she said.

The project, Amos added, allowed her students to see the relationship between changes to law and policy and the resulting effect on the hydrologic dynamics in the Willamette River Basin.

“People often criticize the legal academy for not doing work that directly impacts people’s lives,” said Marcilynn A. Burke, dean and Dave Frohnmayer Chair in Leadership and Law. “Our faculty and our students, conduct research on real-world problems. This research by associate dean Amos is a perfect example of how the UO’s School of Law is pushing research forward to help find better ways to drive change in society.”

Co-authors with Jaeger and Amos were David R. Conklin of Oregon Freshwater Simulations in Portland; Christian Langpap of Oregon State University; Kathleen Moore of the University of Washington, Seattle; and Andrew J. Plantinga of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supported the research.

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law