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Water Games

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Representing USGS, USACE IWR and SARA, referees debate a team’s proposal for an adaptation option for water management at the Multi-Hazard Tournament near San Antonio in September. | Andrea Carson

Water is mighty – a fact that folks around the San Antonio River Watershed know all too well. With a long history of flooding, they have paid its toll many times. The 1998 flood caused two deaths and $500 million in damages. The 2002 flood resulted in 11 deaths and $1 billion in damages.

Last September, a group of local, state, and federal water managers, agricultural extension agents, risk managers, and scientists competed in a “multi-hazard tournament” (MHT) near San Antonio, Texas. Pioneered by Harvey Hill, 2014-16 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the MHT is a table-top simulation exercise designed to aid decision-making by playing out potential strategies to reduce drought and flood risk. This “serious game” is an innovative way to spur new ideas by creating a fun, team-centered learning environment and fictionalizing potentially polarizing aspects of the focal watershed.

Hill and his colleagues selected Texas’ San Antonio River and Iowa’s Cedar River for application of the concept because USACE has a history of collaboration with the San Antonio River Authority and the City of Cedar Rapids that would benefit from the tournament.

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San Antonio flood
The San Antonio River has a long history of flooding. | Victoria Advocate/NOAA

Forty-one participants were divided into five teams. Each team worked together to select adaptation options addressing three hydrological hazard scenarios: drought, flood, and multiple hazards (high variation in water status). Adaptation options are policies or projects that reduce vulnerability to such hazards. Pre-defined adaptation options in the MHT ranged from zoning changes to water reuse and wetland conservation. A spreadsheet-based decision support tool enabled teams to visualize the tradeoffs of their decisions on metrics such as property protection, water nitrogen levels, aquifer recharge rates, and recreation. To promote innovation, “referees” challenged teams to propose new, creative adaptation options that were economically, legally, and technically feasible.

After each round, teams submitted mock press releases and explained their decisions to the group. Teams received a score in each round based on how well their decisions reduced ecological, sociological and economic risks and the extent to which they addressed watershed and stakeholder interests within the allocated budget.

“It was a rewarding day. The MHT increased participants’ understanding of the diverse water management interests in the region; local drought, flood, and water quality issues; and potential ways to reduce the risk of these hazards,” said Hill.

The San Antonio MHT was the first exercise of its kind in the United States; previous applications involved Canadian watersheds. Two additional USACE-sponsored MHTs are being planned for this year: one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and another, more in-depth MHT in the San Antonio River Basin.

The MHT was organized by the USACE Institute for Water Resources and the South Central Climate Science Center and was hosted by the San Antonio River Authority, with technical support from U.S. Geological Survey and the National Drought Mitigation Center. Teresa Stoepler, 2014-2016 Executive Branch Fellow at USGS, acted as a team facilitator, and Chuck Podolak, 2014-2015 Congressional Branch Fellow sponsored by American Geophysical Union, participated as a “fan,” an expert observer who provided feedback to improve future MHTs.