Restoration through collaboration- an interview with Lisa Dilling

As a new member of the water conservation world, I am quickly coming to understand how much complexity and collaboration underlie the protection of our water resources. Every human, animal, and ecosystem is reliant on reliable access to water, making the management of water tricky business that brings many stakeholders to the table. It makes me wonder how progress is ever made when so many stakeholders are involved in even the smallest of decisions. Do these stakeholders view collaboration as an important part of their work or a necessary side-effect of involving many parties in the conflict?

In my quest to learn more about collaboration in Colorado water, I sat down this week to chat with Lisa Dilling. Lisa is the director of the Western Water Assessment, and helped guide me through my questions.

Lisa has been involved with the Western Water Assessment (WWA) since 2008 and is also a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she teaches a class on risk and resilience (that has inspired this blog series). She has a background in climate science, having worked for organizations like NOAA and NCAR, and she has a passion for working with people and communities to build water resilience.

Lisa’s work at WWA seems to be the perfect medley of her passion and experience. The mission of the organization is to, “conduct innovative research in partnership with decision makers in the Rocky Mountain West, helping them to make the best use of science to manage for climate impacts.” Interestingly enough, part of the reason that Lisa initially made the transition from her work in carbon cycle research to water conservation, was her desire to work in a field where stakeholders were actually sitting down at the table to collaborate and take action.

Throughout the last 12 years, Lisa has worked on a variety of projects including analyzing snowpack and its predictability, resiliency planning with cities and water utilities, and workshops that convene a variety of stakeholders to discuss water scarcity. Her work highlights the value of bringing people together to translate climate science into action and centers around the very thing I am curious about – collaboration as a key to progress in water conservation.

I asked her what she had learned from these interactions over the years, and she expressed to me the importance of trust. Bringing people together is one part of the solution, but building trust between those people is a key to long-term success. Lisa highlighted how trust is something that is built over time, but can be lost quickly. It requires deliberate empathy and effort, but offers great rewards. In her experience, distrust has been a barrier for many water rights owners potentially interested in offering up water for conservation efforts. They fear setting a precedent that prevents their usage of that water in future years when they need it again. I can definitely understand this fear, but also see how efforts to build trust between stakeholders can be a secondary priority to decisions that are being made on tight timelines.

Lisa’s message offers insight into understanding how collaboration is an integral part of protecting water resources. It seems to be a key that connects climate science to action and a platform to build strong foundations for future conservation projects. I really enjoyed talking with Lisa about her experience in the field and am grateful for her time and thoughtful responses. I’m also grateful for stakeholders that are willing to work together, and leaders like her that facilitate these important spaces.