Political scientist among the ranks of National Science Foundation CAREER award winners

Elizabeth Koebele to research collaborative water sustainability policymaking as part of NSF award

Elizabeth Koebele stands next to river

Political scientist among the ranks of National Science Foundation CAREER award winners

Elizabeth Koebele to research collaborative water sustainability policymaking as part of NSF award

Elizabeth Koebele stands next to river

The National Science Foundation recently named a College of Liberal Arts faculty member an early career leader in academic research. Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno Elizabeth Koebele was awarded with one of the foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who serve as academic role models in research and education. Koebele’s project titled “Analyzing the Impact of Collaborative Processes on the Performance of Large-Scale Polycentric Environmental Governance Systems” will investigate ways to better integrate networks of community-scale decision making with regional policy development. More specifically, the project is looking at water sustainability policy in the Colorado River Basin.

The Colorado River spans seven states in the U.S. and two states in Mexico, supplying water to 40 million people. In late 2020, decision makers in the Colorado River Basin began a five-year process of renegotiating various water management rules that are set to expire in 2026. These include rules about how water shortages are "shared" among the U.S. states and with Mexico, as well as how major reservoirs are operated. Given the negative impacts of climate change and other stressors on water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, many stakeholders are calling for a substantial reworking of these rules.

“I hope to provide insight into the design of the renegotiation process as it evolves, as well as into the redesign of policies that will require on-going collaboration to implement in the decades to come,” Koebele said.

Currently, the Colorado River is governed by a network of informal and formal entities that work at different scales – a “polycentric” model that is well-suited for managing such a complex natural resource. It can be challenging, however, to find ways for all of these diverse entities to coordinate in the renegotiation process to achieve broader water sustainability goals for the basin.

Part of Koebele’s research project will be to develop theory on improving collaborative decision making around policy and improving the policy-making process involving multiple groups, which could improve the performance of river basin management around the world.

“As scholars, we actually don't know a lot about the external impacts of collaborative processes on the broader, large-scale governance system in which they function,” Koebele said. “This is the theoretical gap I want to fill.”

Koebele is already building her research team, which includes undergraduate and graduate student research assistants, as well as an advisory board of decision makers and Colorado River Basin stakeholders. One graduate student studying hydrogeology has already been hired, with the plan to educate additional interdisciplinary students on research techniques and data analysis, and to collaborate with a variety of other scholars. Koebele also hopes to use her team’s discoveries to develop local outreach on the Truckee River watershed.

The Truckee River shares a lot of the same qualities as the Colorado River in the sense that it spans across state lines, serves diverse users including tribes and faces similar drought concerns.

“I hope to be able to translate the lessons I learn about collaboration in the Colorado River Basin for the Truckee River management community, as well as other basins that share similar characteristics,” Koebele said.

The Colorado River is facing particularly severe environmental concerns this year because of the dry winter. Low rain and snowfall totals have increased drought concerns, which is why Koebele’s project is more important than ever. She indicated the current drought situation emphasizes the significance of developing new policies to more sustainably manage water resources in the Colorado River Basin during the renegotiation process.

“It’s unusual for researchers to be able to study and contribute to a policymaking process as it evolves,” Koebele said.