NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Against the Stream: How Climate Change and Urbanization Threaten Utah’s Water Resources–and What Utah Science Can Do About It

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[Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Here in Utah, the vulnerability of our water resources has become  impossible to ignore. This year, fully twenty of our counties were designated as drought disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of this writing, almost the entire state is suffering from moderate to extreme drought.

What’s more, that’s just a taste of what the future could look like. Utah’s population is booming–it’s projected to double over the next three decades. This means our already limited water supplies will be divided among more and more people.  On top of that, the state–already the third driest in the U.S.–is threatened by climate change. In fact, Utah is experiencing twice as much warming as the global average, a change that is probably already affecting water supplies. For instance, more precipitation is falling as rain rather than as snow, according to the Utah Climate Center–and that means less buildup of winter snowpack at high altitudes. This isn’t just bad news for the ski industry; it also means that in the spring, less melt water flows downhill into reservoirs. At the same time, higher air temperatures can lead to drier soils and thus more water demand from farmers—and our growing number of citizens.

There’s still a great deal that we don’t know about how the double-whammy of climate change and increasing urbanization will affect the state’s water, though—and how to get ready for the changes that have already been set in motion. That’s where Utah’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) comes in. With a new $ 20 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the iUTAH program (“Innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-sustainability”), Utah EPSCoR is tackling the problem of how to ensure water supply, quality, and above all stability over the long term. The research effort focuses on three major areas: Establishing a rich and ongoing series of measurements of water volume, quality, and other attributes in key watershed areas; studying how greener and more efficient infrastructure can help us get more out of every drop; and using computer simulations to capture the complex dynamics of how different patterns of water use make themselves felt.

Any good scientific enterprise begins with data, and ours is no exception. We’ll be setting up sophisticated observatories in three key basins of the Wasatch Range Metropolitan Area—home to 85 percent of Utah citizens, all of them dependent upon water that originates as snowfall in the Wasatch Mountains. The basins—Bear, Red Butte, and Provo-Jordan—have been chosen to represent different ecosystems: The Bear runs through farmland, albeit farmland that increasingly undergoing urbanization; in contrast, Provo-Jordan feeds the populous Utah and Salt Lake counties. From the snowpack level downwards, we’ll be monitoring stream flow, water quality, and the presence of nutrients and pollutants in these watersheds. This wealth of new information will provide an increasingly fine-grained image of what’s actually happening to Utah’s water.

That understanding, though, only takes on its full significance in the context of how people use water—which brings us to the second part of our scientific initiative. In order to determine what’s driving water use and how its patterns are changing, we’ll deploy the tools of social science: surveys to determine how Utahns think and feel about their water, for instance, complemented by focus groups and in-person interviews. But we’ll also study urban systems, and how different neighborhood layouts and infrastructure designs yield different water outcomes. The crown jewel of this project is a planned “green infrastructure” facility where we’ll actually study water use in a building that is, itself, a science experiment–test-piloting small scale design innovations that can be subsequently exported out into cities and communities.

These two stages of data collection—from nature, and from the human and urban realm—set the stage for the culmination of our project: Integrating all the new evidence into high powered “system models” that can project how societal changes will ripple through the state’s water system, and vice-versa. We’re talking here about delivering tools for policy: Models that can evaluate which restoration projects or urban design initiatives promise the best payoff, for instance.  Ultimately, the goal is to be able to plug in all the data and display the model results on video screens at our planned Environmental Situation Rooms—where policymakers and members of the public will be able to turn the knobs of our water future.

In the end, perhaps the most appealing aspect of the project is this: These scientific infrastructure investments won’t just help Utah to grapple with an increasingly complex future. They’ll also dramatically boost the state’s scientific capacity, draw in talent, and accordingly, enhance our economy. Water flows in intricate, surprising ways—and so does science, once you turn on the tap.


Written by nsfmessengers

August 22, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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