Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

First Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Second Advisor

Max Boykoff

Third Advisor

William Travis


Water is a critical and scarce resource across the western United States. Communities across the region are facing increasing risk of water shortage as demand for water resources rises and as availability of water supply is projected to decrease in the coming decades. Water managers in particular play a critical role in ensuring the sustainable management of water resources, specifically in monitoring, responding to, mitigating risks of, and ultimately building resilience to hydro-climatic variability, and to drought in particular. This thesis examines two aspects of drought adaptation among water managers, specifically a) managers’ access to and adoption of scientific knowledge and information as a key determinant of adaptive capacity, and b) the role of past experience with extreme drought events as a driver of adaptation among water systems. Using a comparative case study design, the study examines five small water systems in the Western Slope region of Colorado, which comprises most of the Upper Colorado River Basin. As a snowmelt-dependent region, the Western Slope faces rising drought risk as temperatures are projected to increase with anthropogenic climate change and as the hydrologic cycle is expected to shift, making the task of improving drought preparedness ever more urgent. Regarding the use of scientific information, this study finds that water managers’ willingness and ability to adopt information products is dependent on how an information product is disseminated and proven successful in other water systems and that managers of smaller-scale water systems are embedded within strong communities of practice in which information use practices are replicated and shared across professional networks. Regarding the role of past experience with extreme drought events as a driver of adaptation, this study finds that extreme events do not consistently drive adaptive change in time and space as is commonly theorized and that political motivation that arises from drought events can both serve to help and hinder drought preparedness goals. Ultimately, this paper contributes important context for state agencies, boundary organizations and other entities interested in finding windows of opportunity to support drought preparedness, including drought early warning, among local water systems.