Satellite Study Reveals Parched U.S. West Using Up Underground Water

July 24, 2014 via NASA

A new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists finds more than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources. The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought.

This study is the first to quantify the amount that groundwater contributes to the water needs of western states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years.

The Colorado River Basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater over the past nine years, according to a new study based on data from NASA’s GRACE mission. This is almost double the volume of the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead. Image Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Colorado River Basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet of freshwater over the past nine years, according to a new study based on data from NASA’s GRACE mission. This is almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead.
Image Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The research team used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. Monthly measurements of the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater, almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total — about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) — was from groundwater.

“We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s lead author. “This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”

Water above ground in the basin’s rivers and lakes is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its losses are documented. Pumping from underground aquifers is regulated by individual states and is often not well documented.

“There’s only one way to put together a very large-area study like this, and that is with satellites,” said senior author Jay Famiglietti, senior water cycle scientist at JPL on leave from UC Irvine, where he is an Earth system science professor. “There’s just not enough information available from well data to put together a consistent, basin-wide picture.”

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, the change in mass due to rising or falling water reserves influences the strength of the local gravitational attraction. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much a region’s water storage changes over time.

The Colorado River is the only major river in the southwestern United States. Its basin supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states, as well as irrigating roughly four million acres of farmland.

“The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States,” said Famiglietti. “With Lake Mead at its lowest level ever, we wanted to explore whether the basin, like most other regions around the world, was relying on groundwater to make up for the limited surface-water supply. We found a surprisingly high and long-term reliance on groundwater to bridge the gap between supply and demand.”

Famiglietti noted that the rapid depletion rate will compound the problem of short supply by leading to further declines in streamflow in the Colorado River.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico,” Famiglietti said.

The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which posted the manuscript online Thursday. Coauthors included other scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. The research was funded by NASA and the University of California.

Read the original article at NASA.

For more information on NASA’s GRACE satellite mission, see:

http://www.nasa.gov/grace

and

http://www.csr.utexas.edu/grace

GRACE is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. JPL developed the GRACE spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

To learn more about NASA’s Earth science activities in 2014, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

-end-

Steve Cole
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0918
stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-0474
Alan.Buis@jpl.nasa.gov

Janet Wilson
University of California, Irvine
949-824-3969
janet.wilson@uci.edu

City of Phoenix Cool Urban Spaces Project

City of Phoenix Cool Urban Spaces Project

Urban forestry and cool roofs: Assessment of heat mitigation strategies in Phoenix

Prepared by the Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges at Arizona State University in collaboration with the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) at the University of Arizona and Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC).

Executive Summary

The City of Phoenix’s Cool Urban Spaces Report (2014) investigated the impact of the Phoenix Cool Roofs and Tree and Shade Master Plan initiatives on the city. The study evaluated how these heat mitigation efforts affect microclimates and human thermal comfort in the Phoenix metropolitan area. These findings are especially relevant as rapid and extensive urbanization has led to an urban heat island (UHI) effect that has increased steadily at approximately 0.9°F per decade.

NOAA_PHX_UrbanSpaces_Rep_225The city’s questions guiding this research were:

  1. What are the cooling benefits achieved by increasing tree canopy from 10% (current) to 25% (2030 goal) and/or implementing cool roofs under existing conditions and projected warming?
  2. What is the diurnal thermal benefit of tree canopy shade for a typical heat wave day during premonsoon summer?

The impacts of cool roofs and trees on near-ground air temperatures were modeled through 54 scenarios for a typical residential neighborhood in Phoenix. We ran the model for a combination of three treeplanting scenarios (no trees, current canopy cover and 2030 canopy goal) and three landscaping scenarios (mesic, oasis and xeric) with regular roofs and cool roofs under current climate conditions and two climate change projections.

Two significant results of the tree and shade initiative are: (1)increasing tree canopy cover to 25% leads to an additional temperature reduction of 4.3°F, which is a total cooling benefit of 7.9°F as compared to a bare neighborhood, and 2) switching landscaping from xeric to oasis, i.e., adding grass patches to residential backyards, reduces average neighborhood temperatures by 0.4°F to 0.5°F.

The scenario with the lowest air temperatures is the residential neighborhood with mesic landscaping, 25% tree canopy cover and cool roofs under current climate conditions with an average neighborhood temperature of 99.5°F. In contrast, the xeric neighborhood with no tree cover and regular roofs under the high-emissions climate change scenario is the hottest. This indicates that the combination of increased tree canopy cover and cool roofs does lower temperatures as well as reduce the demand for air conditioning, thereby reducing anthropogenic heat. However, trees and cool roofs are only part of the solution and need to be included in a broader, more comprehensive mitigation and adaptation plan.

Across all climate and tree scenarios, the effect of cool roofs alone on local daytime temperatures is relatively low. Air temperature reduction only amounts to 0.5°F in the neighborhood. Regarding the city’s cool roofs initiative, results show little benefit for extending this project to commercial and residential properties based on its cooling impacts alone.

Our research thus far indicates that there is no simple solution to mitigating the UHI, but a complex balance of strategies will be necessary so that efforts to lower the daytime temperatures do not increase nighttime temperatures or shift UHI impacts to more vulnerable populations.

Introduction

The Center for Integrated Solutions to Climate Challenges and Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) at ASU, along with Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) at the University of Arizona, through a NOAA-funded grant, convened a workshop with urban managers and practitioners in October 2012. One goal of the workshop was to provide useful, state-of-the-art climate knowledge to encourage the use of climate science in longrange decision processes. Another was to provide opportunities for working with urban managers and planners to develop tangible products and/or processes that will enable the incorporation of this information into their unique planning documents and policies. Attendees were asked to develop project proposals for tractable, city-specific adaptation projects on behalf of their municipality. Three proposals were chosen for funding: Tucson, Flagstaff and Phoenix. The City of Phoenix asked for support in assessing the impact of their urban forestry and cool roofs initiatives on projected heat increases and the urban heat island (UHI).

In Phoenix, rapid and extensive urbanization has led to an UHI in the metropolitan area that has increased steadily at approximately 0.9°F (0.5°C) per decade. A time-trend analysis of Phoenix Sky Harbor air temperatures showed nighttime temperature differences between rural and urban areas of up to 11°F (6°C) in the summer (Brazel et al., 2000). Winter mobile transect observations in Phoenix found a UHI intensity of 14°F (8°C) (Sun et al., 2009), and a study in the spring observed an average UHI intensity of 17°F to 23°F (9.4°C to 12.9°C) (Hawkins et al., 2004). Discussions with Philip McNeely, the city’s Environmental Program Manager; Richard Adkins, Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department’s Forestry Supervisor; and a number of ASU researchers provided insight into the current activities being undertaken by the city to mitigate heat. Among these were their green building and urban forestry initiatives.

The stakeholder questions coming from the activities guiding this research were:

  1. What are the cooling benefits achieved by increasing tree canopy from 10% (current) to 25% (2030 goal) and/or implementing cool roofs, under existing conditions and projected warming?
  2. What is the diurnal thermal benefit of tree canopy shade for a typical heat wave day during premonsoon summer?

This study used micro-scale modeling, hourly meteorological observations and a research synthesis workshop with UHI experts from ASU to help inform the City of Phoenix’s green building and urban forestry initiatives. Initial results were presented to the City of Phoenix in late 2013.

Download the report.

New DCDC Publication

Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems: the sustainability wheel

Published online in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management on July 11, 2014.

Authors

Flurina Schneider (a,b,e), Mariano Bonriposi (d), Olivier Graefe (c), Karl Herwega (a), Christine Homewood (c), Matthias Huss (c), Martina Kauzlaric (b), Hanspeter Liniger (a), Emmanuel Rey (b), Emmanuel Reynard (d), Stephan Rist (a), Bruno Schädler (b) & Rolf Weingartner (b)

Affiliations
a Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
b Department of Geography and Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
c Geography Unit, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland
d Institute of Geography and Sustainability, University of Lausanne, Géopolis, Lausanne, Switzerland
e Decision Center for a Desert City, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

Flurina Schneider is a visiting scholar at Arizona State University, where she is affiliated with the School of FlurinaSchneiderSustainability and Decision Center for a Desert City of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. She holds a PhD in human geography from the University of Bern, Switzerland. Schneider has conducted research on sustainable governance of water and land in Switzerland, Germany and Chile, focusing on multiple stakeholders’ perspectives and values, processes of transdisciplinary knowledge, co-creation through social learning and network building, as well as on issues of power and social justice.

Dr. Schneider is currently the scientific coordinator of the MontanAqua project, which develops strategies for moving towards more sustainable management of water resources in the Alps (Swiss National Science Foundation, Sustainable water management (NRP61)). Within this program, she also has the lead role in two synthesis projects concerning the development of principles of sustainable water use in Switzerland as well as the analysis of potentials and limitations of transdisciplinary knowledge production in research projects of the NFP61.

Abstract

We present and test a conceptual and methodological approach for interdisciplinary sustainability assessments of water governance systems based on what we call the sustainability wheel. The approach combines transparent identification of sustainability principles, their regional contextualization through sub-principles (indicators), and the scoring of these indicators through deliberative dialogue within an interdisciplinary team of researchers, taking into account their various qualitative and quantitative research results. The approach was applied to a sustainability assessment of a complex water governance system in the Swiss Alps. We conclude that the applied approach is advantageous for structuring complex and heterogeneous knowledge, gaining a holistic and comprehensive perspective on water sustainability, and communicating this perspective to stakeholders.

Introduction

In Switzerland, as in many other parts of the world, there is increasing concern that water shortage problems might become more frequent. Consequently, many research and policy efforts focus on issues of more sustainable water governance. However, there are few holistic approaches, which evaluate the sustainability of water governance systems based on comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessments (Reed and Kasprzyk 2009; Wiek and Larson 2012). Most frameworks emphasize singular aspects such as quality and supply of freshwater resources (Kondratyev et al. 2002), infrastructure, adaptive capacity (Hill 2013), or social learning (Pahl-Wostl 2006; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007). Moreover, studies that investigate the sustainability of water governance systems from holistic perspectives (Larson, Wiek, and Withycombe Keeler 2013) primarily focus on the present situation without in-depth assessments of possible future developments.

A holistic framework for the analysis of sustainable water governance systems is proposed by Wiek and Larson (2012). Their framework combines a systemic understanding of the water governance system and its evaluation through a set of sustainability principles. They stress the importance of justifying the normative claims in the system analysis with a transparent set of value laden sustainability principles.

Another approach that is commonly chosen to evaluate water governance sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective is the application of indicators (Sullivan and Meigh 2007; Valenzuela Montes and Matarán Ruiz 2008; Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008; Babel et al. 2011; Lachavanne and Juge 2009 ). The great advantage of indicators is that they provide a reasonably simple tool to combine biophysical and socioeconomic information (Sullivan and Meigh 2007), and allow the reflection and communication of complex ideas by condensing their multifaceted nature into a manageable amount of meaningful information (Babel et al. 2011), yielding good learning opportunities (Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008). However, they also have limitations; quantitative indicators often require (over)simplifying complex and dynamic water governance systems (Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008). Consequently, aspects that are hard to measure, or hard to quantify, such as informal governance practices, are neglected (e.g. Lachavanne and Juge 2009 ). Furthermore, gaps in data often limit the applicability and information value for different case study areas.

Schneider_Fig3_Against this background, our goal is to present a conceptual and methodological approach for an interdisciplinary sustainability assessment for water governance systems – based on what we call the sustainability wheel – and its application in the Crans-Montana-Sierre region of Switzerland, the case study area of the MontanAqua project (Weingartner et al. 2010). For this purpose, we took the basic ideas of the two approaches described above and combined them in a way that would allow the evaluation of the water governance system through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessment.

In this article, we use the term water governance system in a broad sense. Water governance systems are understood to include social practices and institutions, as well as biophysical aspects and processes. When using the term water resource systems, we only refer to the biophysical aspects and processes.

Download the entire article.

Lake Mead Levels to Drop to Historic Lows

July 9, 2014
Listen to DCDC director, Dave White, discuss the regional impact of the drop in Lake Mead’s water level in his interview with KJZZ’s Here and Now.

July 8, 2014

via Bureau of Reclamation by Rose Davis, 702-293-8421

shutterstock_1692138LakeMead_296BOULDER CITY, Nev. – Lake Mead, the reservoir created by Hoover Dam, is anticipated this week to reach its lowest water level since the lake’s initial filling in the 1930s. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Boulder Canyon Operations Office is projecting the elevation to drop to 1,081.75 feet above sea level during the week of July 7 and to continue to drop, reaching approximately 1,080 feet in November of this year.

Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region annually delivers about 9 million acre-feet (MAF) to homes, businesses, farms, Native American tribes and communities, and Mexico.

“We will meet our water orders this year and we are not projecting a shortage condition in 2015,” said Lower Colorado Regional Director Terry Fulp. “We continue to closely monitor the projections of declining lake levels and are working with stakeholders throughout the Lower Basin to keep as much water in Lake Mead as we can through various storage and conservation efforts.”

Annual releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead are determined in accordance with the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Guidelines). Only if Lake Mead is projected to reach elevation 1,075 feet on January 1 of each year would the Secretary of the Interior determine a shortage condition and reduce water deliveries in the Lower Basin.

Lake Mead’s elevation is currently projected to be at approximately 1,083 feet on January 1, 2015.

In Water Year 2014 (ending on September 30, 2014), Lake Powell will have released a record low amount of water, 7.48 MAF into Lake Mead in accordance with the Guidelines. As of July 1, 2014, the forecasted inflow into Lake Powell is 95 percent of average for the water year. In Water Year 2015, Lake Powell’s release to Lake Mead is currently projected to be between 8.23 MAF and 9.0 MAF.

ASU awarded $20M to assess climate change risks and resilience

ASU awarded a $20 million grant by NGA to launch the Foresight Initiative to provide interconnected tools, techniques and environments for decision making for increased global sustainability and resilience.

Arizona State University was selected for a competitive five-year award of $20 million by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to launch a research partnership, effective June 1, 2014, to explore approaches for anticipating and mitigating national security risks associated with climate change.

Known as the Foresight Initiative, the cooperative agreement venture will explore how the effects of climate change on resources, such as water, food, and energy, could contribute to political unrest and instability and gain insights to sustainability and resilience strategies for mitigating the effects.

DCDC will work on incorporating a visual analytics approach to enable policy makers, decision makers, and analysts to anticipate complex behaviors.

This initiative will play a key role in collaborative research efforts to accelerate the evolution of Activity-Based Intelligence addressing system level activities, dynamics, and interdependent network effects in the context of global climate risks to water security. This multi-year research partnership leverages ASU expertise and thought leadership in visual analytics, complex modeling, and transdisciplinary decision making evolving from years of internal and external investments at ASU.

“NGA’s investment and partnership with ASU is a game-changing relationship,” said Michael Crow, ASU president. “This innovative research initiative will develop solutions and be a catalyst for the critical and creative thinking needed to address the complex challenges that come with climate change.”

Leveraging computing and system modeling initiatives at ASU and partner organizations, the Foresight Initiative will apply ubiquitous cloud computing and storage technologies, advances in natural user interfaces, and machine learning to address unique geospatial data handling and visual analytic challenges driven by the volume and character of future persistent data flows. The resulting capabilities will allow analysts and decision makers to dynamically interact with diverse data sets in a real-time modeling and simulation environment. This will help them assess the effectiveness of plans, policies, and decisions; discover second- and third-order causal relationships; and understand spatial and temporal patterns that reveal non-obvious underlying interconnections and dependencies.

“I am very proud to announce our partnership with ASU, a world class research university,” said NGA Director, Letitia Long. “Our partnership is a prime example of the intelligence community working smartly with academia to address strategic global issues and to create capabilities that benefit everyone.”

Dave White - WaterSim in Decision TheaterKey areas at ASU that will be integral to this work include the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Public Programs, Decision Theater Network, and Decision Center for a Desert City.

For example, ASU’s Decision Theater provides advanced modeling and simulation that allows diverse groups of stakeholders to visualize large amounts of data, policy parameters, and environmental uncertainties on panoramic HD displays. Scientists, analysts, and decision makers can easily interact in real-time to tweak the rules and data sets to account for new insights and deeper understanding of relationships, providing a range of outcomes based on the changes. This allows for more effective decision making among people from different backgrounds.

“This is a tremendous partnership and opportunity for a real, tangible impact in addressing strategic security and humanitarian needs,” said Nadya Bliss, principal investigator of the Foresight Initiative and assistant vice president, research strategy with ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “It is also pioneering how the academic and government research communities can leverage each other’s strengths to seek solutions to these global-scale issues while advancing fundamental transdisciplinary research. ASU is the perfect place for this initiative because of the culture of use-inspired research and exceptional quality faculty working across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”

NGA press release.
ASU press release.
GIOS Press Release.

Should sustainability and resilience be combined or remain distinct pursuits?

A recent publication in Ecology and Society by DCDC co-director, Chuck Redman, explores whether sustainability and resilience should be combined or remain distinct pursuits.

Author

Charles L. Redman, DCDC co-director, Professor and Founding Director, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Abstract

chuck-redman-cropped-6-med_296It has become common for sustainability science and resilience theory to be considered as complementary approaches. Occasionally the terms have been used interchangeably. Although these two approaches share some working principles and objectives, they also are based on some distinct assumptions about the operation of systems and how we can best guide these systems into the future. Each approach would benefit from some scholars keeping sustainability science and resilience theory separate and focusing on further developing their distinctiveness and other scholars continuing to explore them in combination. Three areas of research in which following different procedures might be beneficial are whether to prioritize outcomes or system dynamics, how best to take advantage of community input, and increasing the use of knowledge of the past as a laboratory for potential innovations.

Conclusion

The history and archaeology of the past 10,000 years have shown countless examples of people, as individuals, small groups, and increasingly large organizational units, facing changing conditions, serious stresses, and unexpected shocks. Although the geographic scale of modern challenges appears to dwarf historical challenges, systemic shocks experienced by people in the past were just as daunting. Taking a big-picture perspective, people and societies have been amazingly successful in responding to challenges. By most objective measures, the human career to this point has been a great success!

If one takes a simple view of history, it is easy to argue that our society as it has developed will continue well into the future. This success has been achieved through adaptation and occasional transformations that, in virtually all cases, have exacerbated the divide between rich and poor and often led to further degradation of the environmental resources that both groups depend upon. Modest refinements or more efficient approaches to the challenges facing us will not reverse or alter this trajectory. Business as usual will perpetuate aspects of society we find socially undesirable and threaten the capacity of the Earth’s systems. We need to implement more sweeping, transformative changes in the way we interact with each other as well as with the surrounding built and natural environment.

If we need to transform our social-ecological systems to achieve a resilient and/or sustainable world, then we also need scientists to change their way of doing business. Unsurprisingly, personal and societal values influence scientists as they incorporate ethical ideals and approaches into their work. In my own research into future trajectories for urbanization, the ideas of sustainable cities and resilient cities have strong followings. In fact, it has been often suggested to me that for cities to be sustainable they must be resilient. Others argue that sustainable cities of the future will be “smart” cities (Harrison et al. 2010, Calabrese et al. 2011). Both Ecology and Society 19(2): 37 approaches have merits, and combining them may be the best option. However, a closer look at the mechanics proposed for smart cities, increasing energy and material efficiencies through highly interconnected information and decision systems, suggests an inflexibility and extreme hypercoherence that resilience theorists have often warned against (Holling and Gunderson 2002). Smart cities are unlikely to be more just cities, thus failing to achieve a key sustainability indicator. Urban planners and decision makers should assess the potential benefits to each approach, working through their implications in a holistic and consistent way. Toward that end, we must rigorously pursue adoption of distinct resilience and sustainability approaches, as well as combinations of the two, allowing each approach to contribute in ways that reflect its strengths.

View the entire article online at Ecology and Society.

Water Security and the Worth of Arizona Agriculture

Dave White, Mike Lacey, Ron Raynor, and Brian Betcher discuss the issue of water usage in agriculture, which uses two-thirds of Arizona’s water demand.

Central Arizona has a rich history of agriculture, contributing $9.2 billion toward the state’s economy. That water has near-absolute power in determining the region’s fate is not an over-reaching assumption. With increasing urban development and uncertain climate, is this industry doomed or can it be sustained?

Interviewees

Dave White, co-director of DCDC
Mike Lacey, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources
Ron Raynor, Owner, A Tumbling-T Ranches in Goodyear
Brian M. Betcher, Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District

Watch the video created by ASU Video Production.

The Last Drop?

By Christopher Vaughan for ASU Magazine. March 2014.

Soaking up knowledge to conserve that most precious of resources – water

ssebe_vivoni_umb-west_9099_wWhen ASU professor Enrique Vivoni brings American students across the border to Mexico, it’s an eye-opener for them. As part of the US/Mexico Border Water and Environmental Sustainability Training Program, Vivoni works regularly with American and Mexican students on both sides of the border to help them gain a deeper understanding of the water scarcity problems in the Arizona-Sonora desert region. When the students see the many water problems that Phoenix has solved but Mexico is still working on, the common reaction is “I didn’t realize we had it so good,” Vivoni says.

Over the last century, Arizona has created hydrological solutions that have allowed us to populate the desert and made access to water a “soft” problem that most people don’t need to think about, Vivoni says. But that is changing. The needs of agriculture and growing populations will more than drain existing water sources in the state. Historical weather cycles and a changing climate will likely make water supplies even more uncertain. And as hard as things get in the United States, the challenges that populations around the world face in securing adequate water supplies only will grow more dire. Some say that eventually water will be more expensive than oil.

ASU finds itself in a unique position, blessed with the position and resources to address the huge challenges surrounding water access, not only for local communities, but also for cities around the world. Accessing expertise in hydrology, the life sciences, geography, engineering, design and law, ASU researchers are tackling the multifaceted issues involved in solving the problem of water security.

“ASU is well positioned geographically for dealing with many of these problems, and we are leveraging our place along the United States-Mexico border region to understand water issues through many of our faculty members,” Vivoni says.

Making changes in the ‘Cadillac Desert’

Professor John Sabo is one of those faculty members studying the problem. As director of research development and senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability, Sabo knows that communities shouldn’t use more than 40 percent of the renewable water supply to ensure sustainability. “In the region [of the Southwestern United States] known as the ‘Cadillac Desert’ the water use is close to almost 80 percent of the renewable supply,” Sabo says. “We are never going to get to 40 percent; we could get to 60 percent, but it would be costly.”

Just exactly how costly?

“If you cost it out, it’s somewhere between $4.5 billion and $8 billion annually over the next 6-14 years across all seven basin states,” Sabo says. Included in that calculation is an assumption that cities and farms will each become 20 percent more efficient than they are now. “That is not trivial — it works out to between $250 and $875 dollars per year per household,” he notes.

One focus of Sabo’s research is on what amount of water is needed to sustain the natural environment, which is often the neglected third element of the water discussion.

Sabo and his colleagues use the different isotopic profiles of river and groundwater to trace the source of the water on which plants and animals along the river depend for survival. His work has shown the surprising result that it is groundwater, not the surface water that comes down the river, that is providing most of the water for the flora and fauna that exists at the river’s edge.

“It’s said that water always flows toward money, and in the struggle for water between cities and agriculture, the environment always loses out,” he says.

Since water flows toward money, Sabo argues that the only way to protect the river environment is to create new legal and fiscal structures that can protect water for that environment.

“My recent paper is about financing reform that would protect that environment,” he says. He goes on to say that either people will have to rewrite the compact that governs Colorado river water, for instance, or they will have to work within the existing compact to provide the money that buys those water rights and places them in trusts where they are preserved for ecosystems.

“Rewriting compacts is not an option here; trusts are much more tractable,” he says.

Decisions, decisions, decision-making

Balancing the needs of agriculture, cities and the environment will come only from making many such difficult decisions, and each decision will have many “downstream” effects on other human activities. Getting decisions makers the best possible information about water use and future scenarios has been a major reason for creating the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) in the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Patricia Gober, the founding director of the center and a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and in the School of Sustainability, was one of those who decided to use the Phoenix area as a case study of how to help people make better decisions about water management. The effort draws from a wide variety of disciplines. There are currently more than 20 faculty co-investigators from the social, behavioral and physical sciences in addition to hydrology and climatology.

“We created a computerized water simulation model that looked at supply and demand for Central Arizona, community by community,” Gober says. “We made it interactive through the use of slider bars to change levels of population growth and indoor and outdoor water use.”

They exposed elected officials and water managers to the model in the Decision Theater, an immersive audio/visual environment, and worked through various scenarios with them to understand how officials balance needs and make decisions. “We also study ourselves,” Gober says. “We tried to learn how scientists engage with decision makers and how we can improve that interaction.”

The simulation continues to be refined. “We are on WaterSim 5.0 now — it will never be finished,” she said.

Learning from each other

The reins of DCDC now have been taken up by Associate Professor Dave White, the current co-director of the center and its principal investigator. “ASU is producing science and knowledge that is not only the best available, but also because of the close collaboration with the decision-making community, it has relevance and salience” in the world at large, White says.

Of most concern to him now in Arizona are the combination of the state’s growing population and the natural variability of the weather, including cyclical dry periods that can last 30 years, plus the uncertain pressures brought on by climate change.

“On top of that, we could have a catastrophic wildfire in the mountains that prevents the accumulation of the snowpack that usually releases water into summer,” said White, who is also a senior sustainability scientist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “That scenario is really problematic for me now.”

A key element of the center and its programs is that knowledge flows both ways.

“We learn a lot from the managers of those agencies,” White says. “That knowledge leads to enhanced science on our side.”

Mutual understanding and close cooperation will become vastly more important in the future, White says. Like most researchers working on water projects at ASU, White says he is both pragmatic and realistic about the water challenges we face. Ultimately, the researchers tend to believe that smart research and thoughtful decision-making will head off the worst scenarios and ensure that communities don’t go dry.

“I’m optimistic about our ability to deal with these things,” White says.

Author Christopher Vaughan is a freelance science writer based in Menlo Park, CA

New DCDC Publication

Priorities in Residential Water Use: A Trade-Off Analysis

Authors

Edward Sadalla, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University
Anna Berlin, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University
Rebecca Neel, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University
Susan Ledlow, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University

Abstract

lmarquez_FreestonePark_fullA trade-off paradigm was used to examine priorities in residential water use. A total of 426 participants allocated either a small or large budget to various household water uses. A comparison of allocations across budget conditions revealed which water uses were regarded as most important, as well as the amount of water regarded as sufficient for each use. Further analyses focused on the perceived importance of outdoor water use, which accounts for the majority of the water used in residences. Data indicated that indoor uses, especially those related to health and sanitation, were consistently higher priorities for participants in this study. The finding that residents are more willing to curtail outdoor water use than indoor water use has important implications for behavior change campaigns. Individual difference variables of environmental orientation and duration of residence in the desert accounted for some of the variance in water choices.

Download the article from the Environment and Behavior at Sage Publications. Access may be limited.

Mapping the River Ahead

Mapping the River Ahead: Priorities for Action Beyond the Colorado River Basin Study. March 2014.

A Carpe Diem West Report in partnership with the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy, University of Montana.

There’s a new way of thinking about water in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s a lot more expansive than the state centered battles of the past. This evolution is timely in light of the formidable challenges and uncertainties facing the 35 million people who depend on the Colorado River from Colorado to Calexico.

In November of 2012, the United States and Mexico signed an historic agreement for cooperative management of the Colorado River that builds upon the long-standing Treaty of 1944. Along with the federal officials who led the U.S. delegation, representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states and environmental groups actively participated in the negotiation process, and are essential partners in its implementation. No one succeeds in this initiative unless everyone pitches in.

This is not the first agreement that grew from and counts on basin-wide cooperation.

CRBSmapBoR_600In 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation adopted Interim Guidelines for managing the operation of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, reflecting terms negotiated by the seven basin states to address potential shortages through a system of shared curtailments in response to specified hydrologic conditions. It did not contradict the Law of the River, but as one state official described the agreement, “we stretched the hell out of [it]”—referring to the collection of statutes, regulations, and policies that govern basin-wide water allocation and management.

In the coming years, such stretching will need to be done far more often, as pointed out by the findings in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study (“Basin Study”), which was conducted in collaboration with the seven Basin states along with Indian tribes and a diverse list of other stakeholders throughout the region.

For this report we interviewed 32 Colorado River leaders to gather and assess their candid opinions about priority actions going forward following the Basin Study. Our interviewees—whose names are listed at the end of this report, but whose comments remained anonymous— included current and former employees of local, state, interstate, tribal, and U.S. and Mexican federal entities, as well as people at water supply organizations, conservation groups and other nonprofits, universities, and research institutes. Many of these individuals are actively involved in the Work Groups currently delving into the options highlighted in the Basin Study, with the support of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Basin states.

All of our interviewees agreed that time is short, the need for action is urgent, and the innovative solutions emerging throughout the Basin should be shared through more deliberate cooperation and partnerships.

This is a time of opportunity. As one leader observed, “The drought ‘turned the light on’ for many people, so they are more open to the necessary steps to move ahead.” Another stressed the importance of capitalizing on that sense of urgency: “It’s important that you don’t take the foot off the pedal. Stay engaged. . . . Ultimately, [the Basin situation] will reach a crisis stage. Unfortunately, when things reach crisis stage, we don’t always make the best decisions.” Several people conveyed a pressing need to “act, not study.”

Many people offered specific suggestions for priority actions, such as financial incentives for agricultural and urban water conservation and institutional changes to encourage strategic restoration of environmental flows. Others focused more broadly on policies aimed at encouraging movement of water to meet changing demands while maintaining lands in productive agriculture. Some emphasized the need to invest aggressively in new infrastructure to allow water to move between users and to develop new sources.

Virtually everyone emphasized the importance of engaging with one another beyond traditional boundaries, whether among user groups or across state lines and other political divisions. As reflected in our previous two reports on Colorado River management, many people are thinking about and pursuing cooperative solutions and would like to be part of a more deliberate, ongoing dialogue about such opportunities. Some credited the Basin Study with encouraging movement in this direction and are pleased to see a broader range of interests at the table now in Basin Study’s Work Groups and elsewhere, particularly representatives of Indian tribes and NGO stakeholder groups. Several people praised the Basin Study Work Groups for focusing attention on environmental flows and recreational uses of the river, as well as human and agricultural requirements, in its assessment of future water demands.

Even as people are working more cooperatively, they struggle with how to talk about the future of water in the Colorado River Basin. While most public discussions today focus on the projected imbalance of water supply and demand, several of the leaders interviewed for this report argued forcefully for approaching these issues through the lens of vulnerability, especially in light of climate change and increasing frequency of extreme weather events. They urge a greater emphasis on building resilience rather than augmenting water supplies to accommodate growth. Some say this conversation cannot occur without a fundamental reassessment of the Law of the River, although others point to the many ways in which this system of laws and policies has “flexed” over the years.

This report focuses on key themes, as represented by groups of solution options that received the most comments in this interview process.

Most people framed their comments around the options identified in the Basin Study, though their underlying concerns were broader—for example, ecosystem integrity and sustainable agricultural economies. The discussion in the section below titled “Mapping Solutions” highlights solutions grouped within the following themes:

  1. Voluntary and temporary water sharing transactions
  2. Broad water transfer mechanisms engaging water users over larger areas
  3. Urban water conservation and reuse
  4. Physical approaches to augmenting and managing water supplies
  5. Dialogue, coordination and education

Read the entire report at Mapping the River Ahead.