Emotional growth played role in historic water agreement

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Hannah Gosnell

It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of this moment in the history of water conflict in the Klamath Basin and in the American West more generally. Hannah Gosnell.

“This moment” refers to the 2010 agreement on settling long-disputed water rights in the Klamath Basin, the subject of Hannah Gosnell’s research project as a 2011-12 Center Research Fellow. An assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at OSU, Gosnell was trained as a social scientist but her analysis of the Klamath dispute, she said, requires a humanistic approach, in particular, insights gained from the study of “emotional geographies.”

During interviews conducted in the area, Gosnell found herself “hearing again and again about painful experiences surrounding efforts to resolve conflicts over tribal water rights, and significant breakthroughs that came from specific emotional interactions between key tribal and nontribal entities.”

Entrenched notions about fairness and justice and who has the right to water, she said, shifted dramatically as a result of emotional interactions and changing sense of place among the key players. To understand what happened requires a sophisticated understanding of emotions like anger, fear, pain, remorse and, especially, forgiveness.

Water resource geographers have long been interested in conflicts surrounding water policy, management, and law, said Gosnell, but their work has been “characterized by applied, technical, policy relevant studies firmly seated in the physical and social sciences, with very little in the way of humanistic approaches.” She sees great potential for enriching the field of water resource geography through exploring the role that emotions, identity, trust and sense of place play in negotiations over water, especially in a tribal context, where painful histories loom large.

While some humanistic geographers have dealt with emotion, space, and place, she said, they have tended to neglect subject matter related to natural resource management. Her aim is to bridge this gap.

In 2010, the utility company, PacifiCorp, signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which details the removal of four dams—the largest such project in history—along the Klamath River in Oregon and California. The agreement is intended to work in tandem with the larger Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which aims to restore threatened fisheries and bring accord to all parties.

“Progress on these agreements thus far has been remarkable considering the animosity and distrust that have characterized stakeholder interactions in the Klamath Basin for decades, especially between tribal and nontribal entities,” said Gosnell. “The Klamath Basin has been ground zero for conflicts between the Endangered Species Act, Indian water rights, commercial ocean fishing, and irrigated agriculture for decades. It has provided vivid examples of the impacts that modern, large-scale ecosystem modification, including large dams, has on indigenous communities and fisheries.”

Drawing on document analysis, participant observation, and interviews conducted over the course of four years, Gosnell hopes to produce a book that will explain the attitudinal transformation in the region, focusing in part on “the beginnings of a shared, Basin-wide community identity and a collective approach to problem-solving.”

The book will focus on four main themes: tension between top-down and bottoms-up approaches to managing complex systems; challenges inherent in the transition to new political and economic realities in the American West, including growing tribal power; differing experiences of mourning, loss, and reinvention of identities, livelihoods, and sense of place and community; the process through which individuals and communities move from conflict to collaboration.

“I intend to delve into literature dealing with the ways in which emotions constitute and are constituted by particular places. In particular, I plan to make a case for the critical role that apology, rectification, trust, compassion, and forgiveness can play in healing old wounds and resolving water conflicts.”