Adaptive Water Management in Reservoirs


Reservoir operations must respond to changing conditions, such as climate, water demand, regulations, and sedimentation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) can reallocate reservoir storage to respond to such changes. We assembled and analyzed a database of reservoir reallocations implemented and proposed by the Corps. While only a small portion of total reservoir storage nationwide has been reallocated, there are substantial differences in reallocation frequency and magnitude across the nation: some Corps Districts and Divisions use reallocation while others do not, relying more on discretion and small‐scale adaptation of operations. This difference illustrates how water resource agencies like the Corps decentralize management decisions to allow responding to disparate conditions. Decentralized decision‐making provides a responsive approach to water management, while centralized and hierarchical decision‐making is a slower, more deliberative approach. Decentralized decision‐making may lead to the accumulation of short‐term, local decisions over time to the point that the system is managed differently than anticipated. Reallocation, which is a form of planned adaptive management, can be accommodating of multiple competing demands and different stakeholders, yet expensive and less temporally responsive. The challenge for any large water resource management agency is to balance between local‐level, responsive discretion vs. centralized, planned decision‐making.