The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed much of the nation’s inland navigation, flood management, port and harbor, and coastal protection infrastructure. For much of the Corps’ history, the objectives of its civil works program for water resources development have been to construct and maintain channels and ports for commercial navigation, reduce flood damages, protect beaches against erosion, and produce hydroelectric power (and more recently, to promote ecosystem restoration). There have always been criticisms of Corps analytical methods and decision making, but the agency’s engineering and planning expertise was long held in high regard by many observers. But the setting of U.S. water resources management changed in the latter part of the twentieth century. There were environmental consequences of previous economic development projects, laws were passed to protect the environment and endangered species, new concepts of ecosystem science and water management were developed, and there was increased recognition of long-term risks and uncertainties within water resources management. In addition, challenges to the Corps’ analytical abilities became widespread and many well-informed interest groups and citizens demanded a greater voice in project design and decision making. The U.S. Congress also gave the Corps a specific ecosystem restoration mission in the 1990s. Furthermore, biological and ecological scientists increasingly noted that hydrologic variability and extremes—which the Corps had been traditionally expected to reduce and control—are often essential to the health of aquatic and coastal ecosystems. These scientific and social changes, along with inadequacies of traditional water management frameworks and approaches, prompted the search for water management and ecosystem restoration strategies that can better respond to new knowledge and to shifting social and economic preferences.
The concept of “adaptive management” has gained attention as having the potential to help address these types of changes and challenges. Adaptive management promotes flexible decision making that can be adjusted in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management ac-
tions and other events become better understood. Careful monitoring of these outcomes both advances scientific understanding and helps adjust policies or operations as part of an iterative learning process. Adaptive management also recognizes the importance of natural variability in contributing to ecological resilience and productivity. It is not a “trial and error” process, but rather emphasizes learning while doing. Adaptive management does not represent an end in itself, but rather a means to more effective decisions and enhanced benefits. Its true measure is in how well it helps meet environmental, social, and economic goals, increases scientific knowledge, and reduces tensions among stakeholders.
The foundations of adaptive management rest in many fields, but its initial presentation as a natural resources management paradigm was in the 1970s, when it was offered as a way to help managers take action in the face of uncertainties, to reduce uncertainties, and to craft management strategies capable of responding to unanticipated events. Adaptive management is not a “one size fits all” or a “cookbook” process, as experience with the concept and its related procedures to date is limited and evolving. There are multiple views and definitions regarding adaptive management, but elements that have been identified in theory and in practice are: management objectives that are regularly revisited and accordingly revised, a model(s) of the system being managed, a range of management options, monitoring and evaluating outcomes of management actions, mechanisms for incorporating learning into future decisions, and a collaborative structure for stakeholder participation and learning. These elements have been traditionally viewed and promoted, to varying degrees, as essential to sound water resources management; adaptive management offers a framework for their integration. Implementation of adaptive management also provides the potential to respond in a timely manner to changing conditions, social objectives, and new knowledge. It can therefore help avoid costly or irreparable mistakes and unintended consequences.
The adaptive management concept is being used to varying degrees to manage water resources in several locations in the United States. For example, Congress has expressly required the use of adaptive management in the Florida Everglades ecosystem restoration program. It is a core concept of plans to restore Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems. The Corps has employed various components of the adaptive management framework in select areas, including the Upper Mississippi and the Missouri River systems. Adaptive management promotes learning by experience; but learning from mistakes is difficult for both individuals and organizations, and it may be tempting to subvert adaptive management
approaches when inevitable mistakes and setbacks occur. Furthermore, even in favorable circumstances, adaptive management will not eliminate uncertainties inherent within natural resources management. Adaptive management does not represent a panacea for addressing the multiple social, economic, budgetary, and scientific challenges that attend water and natural resources management. In fact, there are instances in which adaptive management may not be appropriate, such as settings of pronounced political conflict in which participants can find no common ground. The approach, however, holds promise for helping the Corps better accommodate shifting social preferences and new scientific knowledge so that project operations can be adjusted to ensure progress toward economic and environmental goals.
In an effort to better understand the adaptive management concept and how it might be implemented to good effect within the Corps and its project operations, the Corps requested the National Research Council to convene a panel to provide advice on the subject (this report is part of a multiple panel effort, explained in this report’s Foreword). The statement of task that guided this study was:
The panel will review the Corps of Engineers’ efforts in applying adaptive management concepts to project and program planning and operations, identifying adaptive management’s potential and its limitations. The panel will consider the range of Corps of Engineers’ responsibilities that relate to adaptive management concepts, including ecosystem restoration, flood damage reduction, and navigation enhancement. The panel will review the Corps’ methods for implementing and practicing adaptive management and will identify barriers to implementing the concept. The panel will also recommend ways in which adaptive management might be usefully applied in Corps project planning and operations.
This report and the panel activity were part of a larger effort that included multiple panels and a coordinating committee. The four study panels considered different dimensions of Corps planning (peer review; analytical methods; river basins and coastal systems; and adaptive management). The coordinating committee tracked progress of the panels and wrote its own report (which includes a synthesis of the findings and recommendations of the study panels). The chairs of the four study panels were all members of the coordinating committee, which enhanced the
coordinating committee’s communications with the study panels. Each panel operated independently and in accord with National Research Council guidelines. The coordinating committee also issued its own report, and in doing so, it considered draft reports from the panels (in the case of the panel on peer review, its final report was used; see NRC, 2002), as well as discussions among panels, panel chairs, and other coordinating committee members.
NEW EMPHASES IN CORPS WATER PROJECT PLANNING AND OPERATIONS
The Corps of Engineers began employing adaptive management approaches in the early 1990s. With support from its military and civilian leaders, the Corps is moving forward with adaptive management in select locales and with varying degrees of authorization and resources from the Congress. But the Corps has no mandate from the U.S. Congress to implement adaptive management principles throughout the agency and all projects that could benefit from its use. Adaptive management is a multi-disciplinary, evolving concept. Its implementation represents a challenge for a construction- and operations-oriented agency like the Corps of Engineers. Adaptive management’s core principles emphasize concepts such as uncertainty, surprise, and resilience. These concepts run counter to traditional engineering planning concepts of deterministic systems, precision, and model predictions. Adaptive management stresses the value of variability and extremes in sustaining healthy ecosystems. The Corps, on the other hand, has long sought to reduce hydrologic variability by providing reliable navigation channels, reducing high flows, and stabilizing coastal areas and beaches. Adaptive management will thus entail changes in operational styles and in organizational accountability.
The Corps manages a multi-billion dollar infrastructure that controls a large portion of the nation’s hydrologic systems. The agency, like several other organizations and sectors across the nation, is in the midst of a shift from an emphasis on new project construction to an emphasis on better management of existing infrastructure. The implementation of adaptive management principles would entail changes to Corps guidance, staffing, and procedures. It would also require the administration and Congress to provide resources and additional legislative guidance and clarity to the Corps. As it proceeds with implementing adaptive management, the Corps, together with the administration and the Congress,
should consider the following:
Adaptive management practices can be relevant and useful across a variety of scales and settings. In tracking experiences with adaptive management, the Corps will benefit by a better understanding of the settings in which an adaptive approach—which may not always be appropriate—is merited and useful.
Adaptive management may be particularly suited to large, complex ecosystem restoration projects, which entail large degrees of risk and uncertainty, multiple, and changing objectives, and phased components. Adaptive management can be especially important in multi-phase activities, as it can promote adaptation of ends and means based on lessons learned that lead to model improvements to support future decisions.
Adaptive management entails a spectrum of approaches. These range from “passive” programs, which focus on monitoring and evaluating outcomes from a particular policy choice, to more formal and rigorous “active” adaptive management, which designs management actions to test competing models of system behavior so that models can be improved for future decision making. Ever-improving guidance could help provide advice concerning the degree to which adaptive management is applicable to various types of projects. This could range from limited monitoring programs (passive) to more formal (active) adaptive management programs with carefully-structured operational alternatives and ecosystem models.
Although adaptive management has been linked primarily with natural resources management, it can be used to manage other types of systems. For example, sectors such as trade and transportation employ similar principles: a range of future outcomes are considered and probabilities are weighed, small-scale pilot projects are tested, actions are designed to be useful across a range of potential futures, reversible actions are favored over irreversible actions, results are monitored, and policies are modified accordingly. Adaptive management concepts could thus be useful within the Corps navigation and flood management programs, as well as to its efforts in ecological restoration.
COMPONENTS OF ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT
Evaluations and Operations
The Corps’ civil works program for water resources traditionally focused on constructing new projects. This focus has shifted because of declining federal budgets for water development, declining public support, and a decreasing number of favorable project sites. As a result, operations, maintenance, and modifications of existing infrastructure will become an increasingly important part of the Corps’ work program. The creation of operations schemes that meet today’s needs and preferences and that can adjust to changing conditions will require careful monitoring of project impacts, flexibility to make operational changes, closer cooperation with other agencies and with the public, and an increased emphasis on (re)allocating resources among stakeholders. Monitoring and evaluation of project outcomes are core adaptive management principles. Post-construction assessments could include the monitoring of ecological, economic, or other relevant variables, as well as broader evaluations of project or program effectiveness.
1. Post-construction evaluations should be a standard for adaptive management of Corps projects and systems.
The 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA 1986) changed the financial terms of stakeholder participation in Corps projects, mandating more stringent cost-sharing requirements for local sponsors of Corps projects. WRDA 1986 has resulted in local stakeholders—most importantly, the co-sponsor—taking a greater interest in project design and implementation. Co-sponsors typically have a preferred option and are naturally interested in timely completion and in limiting expenditures. But Corps of Engineers water projects affect numerous parties beyond a local co-sponsor, and these other stakeholders may have legitimate and strong differences of opinion over project construction or operations. In addition to these types of tensions, there may be resistance among agencies, professionals, and other stakeholders to the adaptive management concept itself. Others may perceive that adaptive management poses needless and careless risks to their livelihoods. Others may perceive that adaptive management entails open-ended scientific investigations that have little relevance to management decisions.
Large, multipurpose projects affect many stakeholders that have different, often conflicting, expectations. Differences between stakeholders are inherent and inevitable in nearly all resources management settings. Adaptive management does not aim to eliminate such differences, but rather to provide an orderly approach for identifying and discussing differences. Adaptive management does not attempt to solve all problems or resolve all disputes before its implementation. If stakeholders are willing to negotiate and seek common ground on some initial steps—even small ones—adaptive management can provide a process for collaborative discussions and learning, both among stakeholders and among stakeholders and scientists. It represents the beginning of a process, not a grand master plan that must be rigidly adhered to. Adaptive management requires some degree of agreement between stakeholders, such as agreement on questions or lines of inquiry to be pursued by an adaptive approach. Adaptive management is not a substitute for willingness to collaborate and compromise, and there may be settings in which adaptive management is not possible. Properly executed, however, adaptive management can provide a process for resolving disputes, as well as social learning of environmental, economic, and other systems.
Despite challenges that attend meaningful stakeholder collaboration, it is an important part of adaptive management. Stakeholder and agency involvement should begin in the initial stages of adaptive management efforts and should include participation in periodic review of monitoring results and management models. The Corps’ experiences with Shared Vision Modeling, which involves stakeholders in assessing possible outcomes through models of assumptions and key processes, is an example of one potentially useful means for promoting stakeholder collaboration.
2. Stakeholder collaboration should be an integral component in the adaptive management of Corps projects and systems.
Independent Expert Input
Results from modeling exercises, or results from economic or environmental investigations, do not always provide findings upon which all scientists and other interested parties fully agree. Such ambiguities can hinder adaptive management’s iterative cycle of actions, observations, evaluations, learning, and new actions. Furthermore, as illustrated in reviews of adaptive management science programs in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, independent expert review can point out inadequacies in modeling, monitoring, and assessment. Although such
independent advice is useful and increasingly common in some circles, the use of experts will not eliminate the uncertainties endemic to many operating environments. Adaptive management will not obviate agencies and decision makers from having to use their best judgment to make decisions in the face of uncertainties. Independent experts can, however, help validate underlying assumptions, overall logic, and planning methods and techniques, and can aid in resolving science-based disputes.
3. Independent experts should be periodically enlisted to provide advice on Corps adaptive management initiatives.
A CENTER FOR ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT
The Corps of Engineers is a highly decentralized organization, with most of its staff members employed in 41 district offices across the nation. No mechanisms currently exist to facilitate comparison of adaptive management efforts and experiences across Corps district offices or from other organizations. Adaptive management practices should be tailored to local circumstances, but a common understanding of adaptive management principles and “best practices” across the agency would also be useful. Internal agency expertise is also important in ensuring that advice from external experts is put to best use. Agency-wide implementation of adaptive management will require a breadth of inter-disciplinary expertise that, given political realities, budgetary limitations, and differences across Corps districts, would be difficult and impractical to replicate at every Corps district office. Many Corps staff members are familiar with adaptive management principles and many of them have extensive experience in working with the concept in settings like the Florida Everglades. The more important issue is that agency-wide guidance for adaptive management (such as a “best practices” guide) is not being developed, lessons from the agency’s offices across the nation are not being meaningfully and systematically shared, and staff are not specifically charged to follow developments in the professional literature or adaptive management experiences in the U.S. and around the world. Such a center would not itself implement all adaptive management programs and actions, but rather would assist Corps district offices in the design, implementation, and review of adaptively managed projects and programs. The Center would provide agency-wide guidance on adaptive management concepts, supply training, facilitation, and assistance in developing adaptive management schemes and monitoring designs, and facilitate information sharing. A center could also promote collaborative relation-
ships with other federal agencies that are pursuing adaptive management.
4. Congress should establish a Corps of Engineers Center for Adaptive Management.
ROLES OF THE ADMINISTRATION AND THE CONGRESS
The Corps of Engineers operates at the behest of the administration and the Congress. Four areas in which the implementation of adaptive management requires support of the administration and the Congress are: legislation and guidance; resources to initiate and sustain adaptive management efforts; interagency relations; and project authorization.
Legislation and Priorities
The Corps of Engineers is subject to a large body of legislation, administration guidance, and congressional committee language. As additional laws and authorizations have been passed over the years, the consistency of existing and new obligations has not been carefully evaluated. In this setting, the Corps at times appears reluctant to move away from pre-existing authorized purposes, even when it may have the legal authority to do so. This accretion of potentially inconsistent authorizations and legislation contributes to the decision making gridlock characteristic of many U.S. river systems today. Such impasses must then be broken by Congress or by the courts. A clearer sense of water policy priorities from the administration and the Congress would provide the Corps a better sense of limits and priorities within its efforts in adaptive management. Some of this gridlock also originates in conflicting aims between stakeholder groups. A line agency like the Corps of Engineers cannot legitimately resolve such conflicts, the existence of which stymies its management efforts.
5. The administration and the Congress should help resolve conflicts and inconsistencies within the body of national water policies, and should clarify water management objectives that it wishes the Corps to pursue.
Existing authorities for most Corps projects prohibit the agency from
unilaterally implementing marked changes to project operations. Typically, the Corps constructs a project, then turns over post-construction operations and related activities to a local sponsor. Adaptive management will require a shift in this paradigm, with greater attention and resources devoted to post-construction monitoring, evaluation, and stakeholder input. The agency does, however, have some “continuing authorities” that allow for post-construction evaluations and operational adjustments. Key continuing authorities are the Section 216 authority from the 1970 Flood Control Act, the Section 1135 authority from the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, and the authorization for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program. These authorizations allow the Corps to review and modify existing operations in response to significantly changed conditions, without additional congressional authorization. These authorizations were not, however, designed explicitly to promote adaptive management principles and an iterative cycle of post-construction monitoring, evaluation, and operational adjustments.
6. Congress should provide a new study authority and direction that will increase the Corps’ ability to monitor and evaluate post-construction changes and periodically adjust operations of existing projects in order to increase overall project benefits (the report from the 216 studies coordinating committee provides more detailed recommendations on a new study authority for the Corps).
Resources for Adaptive Management
Successful implementation of adaptive management will require resources to support its various components, including monitoring and related science programs, support staff, and stakeholder participation.
7. Congress should allocate funding and personnel resources to help support and sustain an adaptive management program within the Corps.
Current policy guidance and budgeting procedures inhibit adaptive management practices. In the case of new Corps projects, the Corps has chosen to limit adaptive management expenditures to no more than three percent of the overall project cost and to a limited duration. In addition, most projects require a local sponsor to share in initial project costs and assume full responsibility of all post implementation costs. Adaptive management is a process that is different than traditional brick and mortar civil works construction, and it will often entail benefits that extend beyond the interests of a local project co-sponsor.
8. The administration and the Congress should consider revising cost sharing formulas to promote the application of adaptive management principles.
Effective adaptive management often requires the participation of multiple federal and state agencies. Although there are examples of useful efforts in interagency coordination (e.g., the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program), improvements in this realm are necessary to move toward more comprehensive management regimes that better link environmental monitoring, social and economic changes, and policy decisions.
9. The administration should strengthen federal interagency coordination mechanisms for large-scale water resources and coastal management efforts at both the national and regional levels.