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Changing Flows: Sociotechnical Tinkering for Adaptive Water Management


The Western United States is experiencing historic drought, increasing pressure on water management systems. Agricultural production that relies on surface water flows is therefore imperiled, requiring new innovations and partnerships in order to adapt and survive. In Arizona, some agriculture continues to rely on historic, low-tech irrigation infrastructure such as hand-dug open ditches that divert river water to flood fields. These ditch systems are managed through both formal ditch companies and informal associations. To address changing water availability and needs, ditch users regularly “tinker” with water infrastructure, experimenting and making changes beyond the original infrastructure plans. Such changes are informed and driven by local social relationships and realities of the physical infrastructure. These dynamics are critical to understanding the adaptive capacity and flexibility of the water system; however, they are challenging to recognize and record. In this paper, we apply the emerging conceptualization of sociotechnical tinkering to examine the adaptive management of irrigation ditches in the Verde Valley of Arizona. We find evidence that water users frequently tinker with their water delivery and monitoring infrastructure to respond to and anticipate changes in water availability. Viewed through the lens of sociotechnical tinkering, these interactions are understood as the material manifestations of situated practice and actor agency within a water management system. This case study contributes to literature on adaptive environmental management and the hydrosocial cycle.

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This work was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Water for Agriculture grant no. 2017- 68007-26584/project accession no. 1013079 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. We wish to thank the Verde Valley community and our Water for Agriculture collaborators for their contributions to this study.

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Correspondence to Barbara Quimby.

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Independent Scholar: Julia C. Bausch

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Quimby, B., Nichols, C.M., du Bray, M.V. et al. Changing Flows: Sociotechnical Tinkering for Adaptive Water Management. Environmental Management 71, 421–431 (2023).

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  • Agriculture
  • Water infrastructure
  • Ditch irrigation
  • Adaptive capacity
  • Hydrosocial