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. 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

Recurring droughts, flood events, and concerns over extreme events in the future have created a strong interest in how to plan in the face of these extremes among water managers in the Front Range of Colorado. Traditional methods of identifying alternatives for water supply management may not fully capture the range of existing preferred alternatives, meaning that utilities may miss some of the solutions that appropriately balance among tradeoffs. One of my current collaborative projects seeks to co-produce and test a newly developed multi-objective decision tool as a testbed to aid this process, balancing conflicting management objectives for water planning under climate extremes and determining how policy alternatives perform under severe climate uncertainty.

A second interdisciplinary, collaborative project 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.

A third example, a multi-institution collaborative project, 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 U.S.


Framework for co-production of an experimental Multiobjective Evolutionary Algorithm

Framework for co-production of an experimental Multiobjective Evolutionary Algorithm (MOEA) Testbed in partnership with water utility decision makers (Smith et al. in preparation). Figure courtesy: Rebecca Smith

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