Decision Support for Climate Adaptation in the Upper Colorado River Basin: Why Drought Decision Makers Choose to Use Tools (or Not)

Research Project: 


Project Manager: 

Chris M. Morris, Creative Commons.


Adapting to climate change and variability, and their associated impacts, requires integrating scientific information into complex decision making processes. Recognizing this challenge, there have been calls for federal climate change science to be designed and conducted in a way that ensures the research translates into effective decision support. Despite the existence of many decision support tools, however, the factors that influence which decision makers choose to use which decision support tools remain poorly understood. Using the Upper Colorado River Drought Early Warning System as a case study, this research will 1) examine how managers choose between many available tools and 2) consider how tool creators can better align their offerings to decision maker needs.


1. Improve understanding of:

  •  The factors that influence decision makers’ choices to use decision support tools or not, and how they choose between available tools
  •  How scientists creating decision support tools currently interface with decision makers and how their outreach efforts do or do not match information channels preferred by managers
  •  The role that decision support tools play in drought decision making

2. Provide useful information to the National Integrated Drought Information System about the current use of the Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Early Warning System


Study Area and Scope

The Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB) was one of the first pilot areas, beginning in 2008, for implementation of a regional drought early warning system (DEWS) under the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), which now supports ten regional DEWS. The selection of the UCRB for a DEWS reflects the regional importance of drought monitoring for managing water supply for agriculture and other uses, and the need for effective decision support related to drought. New drought-information tools have been developed specifically for the UCRB DEWS, and a number of others have been created since 2008, adding to the pre-existing toolkit for drought decision making. The various tools that are now available in the UCRB region can be expected to be more or less suitable for different decision makers’ needs. As a result, the broad decision context of this case study (managing drought) is fixed, but information needs vary. Thus decision makers will make varied choices about which of the available tools to use or not use.

Data Collection

The overall aim is to juxtapose understanding of the tool development process of tool creators with understanding of the choices made by prospective tool users to incorporate (or not) given decision support tools into their drought decision making. Document analysis will provide context and an official view of tool development or agency decision making. Conversations with scientists creating tools and drought decision makers will be used to understand motivations, priorities, concerns, and tacit influences on behavior.