How Can You Effectively Plan if the Goalposts Keep Changing? An Overview of Adaptive Pathways Planning Process

There exists much uncertainty in the watershed management community – unprecedented flooding events, rising seal levels, evolving regulations, funding accessibility, and even the Covid pandemic.  Virginia municipalities are tasked with maintaining and improving water-related infrastructure.  They must make sound decisions to best utilize funds amid deep uncertainty associated with climate change as well as population, land use, societal and environmental perspectives, politics, technology, and the economy.

The Adaptive Pathways Planning Process considers the inevitable uncertainty and unexpected events, amidst predictable changes.  This approach seeks to reduce inefficiencies and shortcomings of planning for a static predicted future. Adaptive pathways planning is a practical approach that seeks to maximize flexibility, keeping options open, and avoiding lock-in to a specific solution.

With traditional scenario planning, sometimes referred to as “Adaptive Planning”, estimates of work, timing, and cost are developed based on the best information and judgements today, however, it is unclear what to do in the future, if and when conditions change – and indeed how to know when conditions have changed enough to warrant a change. Virginia municipalities can implement the Adaptive Pathways Planning process approach as they strive for better community and environmental outcomes.

This approach has been pioneered in the field of climate adaptation and is now being used to enhance the development of IWM/One Water strategies. Using this approach will enable Virginia municipalities to create robust and flexible long-term strategies that will also employ the best use of municipal dollars. This presentation will provide an introduction of adaptive pathways planning for water infrastructure, explain why it is important to plan for uncertainty, and present an overview of the adaptive pathways planning approach.  The presentation will illustrate how Virginia municipalities can best maintain and improve their water infrastructure in the context of an uncertain future. Practical examples of the application of the framework will be presented.