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How experiences of climate extremes motivate adaptation among water managers

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As water systems are likely to experience mounting challenges managing for climate variability and extremes as well as a changing climate, there is increasing interest in what motivates systems to implement adaptive measures. While extreme events have been hypothesized to stimulate organization change and act as “windows of opportunity” and “pacemakers” driving toward adaptation, they do not always seem to do so. We therefore sought to understand the responses and motivations for organizational behavior in the wake of two significant droughts across five smaller water systems in Western Colorado, USA. We conducted interviews and focus groups across these systems to understand whether and why significant droughts in 2002 and 2012 prompted adaptive change. Results indicate that systems did not uniformly decide to change their policies in the wake of drought, and even well-prepared systems were driven to change policies by other pressures, such as peer-system pressure and political pressure from residents. We find that organizational worldviews were important mediators of how the experience of drought manifest, or not, in organizational changes. These findings have implications for assumptions about what might drive organizational learning and change among water managers for climate adaptation in the future.

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We thank all of the Western Slope water managers who gave of their time to participate in this study. The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sectoral Applications Research Program under Grant No. NA16OAR4310132, Ben Livneh, PI. We are also grateful to Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River District, Nolan Doesken of the Colorado Climate Center, and Jeff Lukas of the Western Water Assessment for providing valuable feedback and input into the design of this study. The authors are solely responsible for all content.

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Correspondence to Lisa Dilling.

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Page, R., Dilling, L. How experiences of climate extremes motivate adaptation among water managers. Climatic Change 161, 499–516 (2020).

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