Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Lisa Dilling

Research Interests

I am an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies program and Director of the Western Water Assessment program. My research focuses on understanding how society chooses to respond to environmental risks such as climate change. I use interdisciplinary, empirical methods to study questions such as how different views about the nature of risk affect the outcomes of decision processes. I am also interested in the tradeoffs involved in implementing new policies at the local scale and understanding how science can best support robust decision making in deeply uncertain contexts.  My work has recently focused on drought and urban water management, climate change and public lands, geoengineering, and municipal policies regarding natural hazards.

Current Research

One of my collaborative projects is focused on identifying opportunities to improve drought risk management and build climate resilience. We conduct in-depth interviews, participant observation, document analysis, and focus groups of Western Slope water entities to characterize decision processes related to drought risk and describe the current use of information among water providers in the Western Slope. In addition, the team is assessing whether snowpack indicators will remain good predictors of seasonal water supplies under a warming climate using modeled data. Climate change projections indicate that a regional warming trend will continue, causing the snowpack to melt earlier and produce less runoff for the same precipitation input, and potentially reducing its utility as a drought indicator.

Another of my collaborative projects seeks to enhance understanding of how drought management strategies may position urban water providers to respond to the long-term impacts of climate change. Municipalities have responded in various ways to past droughts, enacting a variety of policies to cope with temporary reductions in water supply. The fundamental question that arises, however, is whether the policies put in place to reduce short-term vulnerability to drought might in fact have unintended consequences on adaptive capacity in the longer term. The project is using a case study and interview approach to understand drought decision-making in several cities across the United States.

Other recent research has included working with several smaller municipalities in Western Colorado and southern Utah to build collective understanding of how climate is affecting their water supply, flood vulnerability, and fire risk, and where options exist to build resilience for the future. I am also a partner in the new North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center that seeks to build climate resilience among resource managers in the North Central region (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas) by providing innovative and relevant science in a timely and accessible way.



Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia

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