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.

In 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.CRBSmapBoR_600

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.

Finding Water in Arizona – 2014

Each year, the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) Community of Graduate Scholars works on an interdisciplinary project that furthers the mission of DCDC. This year’s project expands on the theme of communicating about complexity in water systems and issues of sustainability through participatory photography.

Express and share your views regarding the following four prompts:

  • Sustainable solutions or creative uses of resources
  • Unique aspects of the central Arizona water system
  • Problems or concerns about the water system
  • Aspects of the system that are poorly understood

How to Participate

  • Participation is open to anyone in Arizona.
  • Participants may submit up to four photographs with quick descriptions responding to our theme.
  • Participants will receive detailed prompts and directions via email upon completion of this form.

By submitting a photograph for the project, participants certify the following:

  • The photo was taken by the participant for this project.
  • DCDC’s Community of Graduate Scholars has permission to use the photograph and the written response to the photograph prompt for the purposes of this project, and can contact the participant to share or request additional information about the project.

The last day to submit photos is April 7, 2014. Photographs and findings will be presented at DCDC’s end-of-the-year Water/Climate briefing, April 28, 2014.

Sign Up To Participate

Sign up to participate using the form below!

If you have trouble viewing or submitting his form, you can fill it out online: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1MODGrdeJ-hLGFF0hzkXE74cnigLcIpjaJQ6SOcg0PDY/viewform.

Sustainability: Water Reuse tonight on KAET’s Arizona Horizon

DCDC_WaterReuse_Final_225Check out DCDC co-director, Dave White, tonight Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 5:30pm on KAET Channel 8’s Arizona Horizon. Dave will speak with host Ted Simons about the Decision Center for a Desert City’s recently released technical report, Water Reuse in Central Arizona.

Authored by Ariane Middel, Ray Quay, and Dave White, the report explores issues critical to water reuse, along with challenges and opportunities for the future. This report attempts to inform policy conversations around wastewater use in Arizona.

Covering topics including existing and projected wastewater supply and demand, potential for increased competition and costs, the role of public perceptions, and industrial perspectives, the report highlights issues vital to the water sustainability of Arizona and presents a framework to address public policy issues.