Envisioning the future of the Yahara Watershed

May 20, 2014 | by Jenny Seifert

Working toward sustainability requires weighing complex decisions based on anticipated long-term outcomes. When faced with uncertain future climate conditions, how can cities approach this process in an effective and organized way?

A group of UW–Madison researchers are tackling this challenge with the newly-launched initiative Yahara 2070, an exploration of possible futures for the Yahara Watershed—the region the university calls home. Through a mix of modeling and storytelling, Yahara 2070 creates fictional yet plausible stories that use science to shape possible answers to the question “what if?”

An initiative of UW–Madison’s Water Sustainability and Climate Project, Yahara 2070 is a set of four scenarios about the watershed in the year 2070. The scenarios speculate—but don’t predict—what the future of the region’s water, land, and climate could be like if Madison and other Yahara communities were to adopt certain approaches to sustainability.

On May 14, 2014, the project team unveiled the Yahara 2070 scenarios at a public event at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to an audience of over 200 people.

Each scenario is based on existing social and environmental trends and presents a different set of implications for future human well-being, with different outcomes for the watershed’s ecosystem services, which are natural benefits such as food production, freshwater, recreation and biodiversity. The four paths are as follows:

Abandonment and Renewal explores what could happen if we fall short in preparing for the numerous environmental challenges we face.

Accelerated Innovation explores what could happen if we prioritize technological solutions to environmental problems.

Connected Communities explores what could happen if we undergo a collective values shift toward community and sustainability.

Nested Watersheds explores what could happen if we reform how we govern freshwater resources, in order to better conserve and protect them.

Although scenarios have been used to chart future courses since being introduced as a military strategy during World War II, the Yahara 2070 scenarios stand out in terms of scale and scope. Few environmental scenarios have narrowed their lens onto a single watershed. Simultaneously, the Yahara 2070 scenarios are broadly multifaceted, combining current scientific understanding, innovative biophysical computer modeling, public input, landscape mapping, narrative storytelling and art to tell comprehensive stories about possible futures.

Among the project’s goals are to spark creative conversation within the region about what a desirable future would look like and to encourage long-term thinking in local decision making, a tough but necessary practice to ensure the Yahara Watershed remains a healthy and resilient place to live, work and play.

The Water Sustainability and Climate Project is a five-year, multimillion-dollar initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to examine how water and other benefits people derive from nature could change over time in the Yahara Watershed. The Yahara 2070 project will continue through 2016.