Use Value Analysis to Rule Out Flood Prone Options

Dear Devin Smith, Senior Restoration Ecologist, Skagit River System Cooperative:

This letter is to recommend and advance elements of a value-analysis-based approach to deciding on which Barnaby Slough habitat restoration alternative is chosen. You may intend to do something very much like what I’m going to summarize, I don’t know, but I want to share some ideas with you which I know are beneficial from my experience facilitating group decision making processes as well as any complex decision featuring multiple alternatives.

Whenever there are decisions to be made which involve multiple criteria for evaluating and selecting among alternatives, it’s always beneficial to identify, weight and select the criteria by which alternatives are going to be evaluated. Criteria may be categorized in two distinctly different ways which I consider to be of paramount importance with respect to this matter. There are criteria which might be labeled “necessary” criteria, meaning criteria which alternatives must meet to be considered qualified criteria. If an alternative does not meet each necessary criterion, then it doesn’t qualify for consideration. The other category of criteria might be labeled “differentiating” criteria. These are criteria which serve to compare the various qualified alternatives against each other. I’ve found it important to assign relative weights to differentiating criteria, as they do not all weigh the same with respect to most decisions.

A critical “necessary” criterion for this project, in my judgment, is that the alternative cannot contribute to flood risk in the project area. If an alternative might do so under any rational scenario, then it is not qualified and the alternative would be removed from consideration. You expressed your personal commitment to assuring that no alternative would contribute to flood risk for land owners and dwellers in the project area. That commitment needs to be sanctified as a criteria or condition alternatives must meet.

Another “necessary” criterion, it seems to me, is that the alternative and its implementation comply with all laws and regulations. I’m sure you and your associates can identify other criteria which would rule out consideration of an alternative.

Differentiating criteria would of course include cost, cost-benefit, ease of implementation, stakeholder support, threat to wildlife, recreational benefit, economic benefit, and so on. By rank ordering these criteria and then assigning relative weights to them, you can ease the decision making process significantly. If what I’m discussing is unfamiliar, I’ll be happy to go through an example. I’ve used decision processes like this in business many times and know from experience that it can be very helpful, especially when a group is composed of members with differing personal agendas and values.

I sense that there’s an underlying motivation to achieve the greatest impact on habitat, and I’m naturally concerned that other criteria by which alternatives would be assessed would then be inappropriately weighted. Of greatest concern is that an alternative might be advanced which does not meet a condition I consider to be necessary: it must not in any rationally conceivable way contribute to an increase in flood risk within the project area.

Making a high quality judgment about this would be understandably difficult, of course, as we don’t know how nature will behave in the future. Conservative assumptions could be made, however, which could help.

I served in the U. S. Coast Guard on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and I’m aware of the tradition of hubris in the Army Corps of Engineers. I’m aware of the fact that many people still harbor the notion that nature can be controlled, in spite of the fact that many modifications have been made to rivers which turned out to be disastrous. I’m also aware of the one-sided perspectives of many agencies and individuals with respect to achieving social goals and objectives. A process that includes carefully identifying the criteria alternatives must meet to be qualified is imperative in my judgment. The effective use of differentiating criteria will yield the optimal selection of the best qualified alternative.

I would like you to share this correspondence with all the key decision makers that will be involved in evaluating alternatives. Please also include it in the public record of input provided by interested parties.

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