ASU’s Decision Theater actively engages researchers and leaders in visualizing on solutions to complex problems. (Photo Credit: Arizona State University)

ASU researchers aim to shift water dialogue away from scarcity

Arizonans are no strangers to the water scarcity debate.

In the desert Southwest, the word “water” can spark serious debate, and for good reason. Lake Mead’s bathtub ring reminds us that this precious resource is limited for the seven Western states — including Arizona — that rely on the Colorado River. That visual spurs talk about extreme conservation, or tapping unused water sources like seawater in the Gulf of Mexico.

At Arizona State University, however, researchers say a shift in perspective is needed. ASU researchers are not merely offering a positive take on a serious issue, but providing an honest look at better management practices, interconnectivity of industry with water supplies and a thoughtful evaluation of existing and future needs.

“We want to drive people toward a different narrative on water,” says John Sabo, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “We think it’s less about ‘we gotta get more’ and more about asking ‘how much better can we do with what we have to attract new businesses and jobs and build the vibrant communities we want to build?’ And, more important: Is there a business opportunity for the Valley in building the technology to be water wise?”

The future of water is now

Sabo serves as the director of ASU’s FutureH2O program, an effort that looks to raise the bar on research and provide insights for private enterprises and utilities, locally and around the world.

One public-private success story involves ASU’s partnership with Dow Chemical. Dow has been a leader in water resource conservation at its Gulf Coast plant in Texas.

Future H2O is now collaborating with Dow and other stakeholders in Texas to develop the scientific foundation for the design and construction of green infrastructure projects in a way that improves the water that’s available for industry and nature.

“This is really about helping to translate scholarship into action,” Sabo says.

ASU also has partnered with Coca-Cola to develop a science-based strategy for future conservation and restoration activities under the beverage company’s water replenishment program. Initiated in 2005 by Coca-Cola, the program began with a goal to return the amount of water used in its finished beverages (more than 190 billion liters) to communities and nature by 2020. It reached that goal by 2015.

“Now, we’re working closely with them to set new goals,” Sabo adds. “We want to help people achieve bigger goals with research focused on opportunity for change and progress toward sustainability around our water issues.”

In fact, ASU has reshaped its research enterprise to focus on economic and civic development and strategic partnerships, not only with industry leaders like Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola, but with businesses and entities of all sizes.

This ideal is a key priority of Campaign ASU 2020, a university-wide fundraising initiative that seeks to strengthen the pipeline of use-inspired research to the community.

Partners and donors engaged with ASU researchers have created a synergy that is driving research forward in new and creative ways.

According to Sabo, for example, FutureH2O would not exist without early investors who supported the very idea of a concerted research initiative aimed at water conservation.

Today, supporters still have the opportunity to work through FutureH2O to turn the tide on global conservation issues.

ASU is also implementing an innovative approach to water usage on campus. The currently under-construction BioDesign C building will house data sensors throughout its water system to provide more information about the quality and quantity of water being used on site.

“This will be the first sensor test bed in the world to simultaneously monitor the quantity and quality of water,” Sabo says. “Data is key to transforming our water future into something more secure and sustainable.”

Engagement and agriculture

Engaging with a variety of community members and stakeholders is another critical step to securing safe and abundant future water supplies. Rimjhim Aggarwal, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability, is particularly interested in how underlying narratives about water scarcity influence behavior and policies.

“A narrative shapes our public conversation, and then when we look for alternatives, the kinds of solutions we seek out depend on the narrative embedded in us,” she says. “When everyone believes something, it almost becomes true.”

Presently, agricultural water use is a topic in Arizona that is undergoing a narrative shift. Since the 1970s, the pro-growth mindset in Central Arizona has shaped a thinking that urban housing will eventually replace almost all non-Indian agriculture, thus reducing incentive or motivation for innovations in agricultural water use in the area. This mindset was behind the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980, Aggarwal says.

Now, informed by numerous “listening sessions” and other forms of engagement with local leaders, farmers, municipalities and students, Aggarwal has observed a gradual shift in this long-held perspective.

“This generation is very much concerned about where food comes from and how they connect to the food. This view about food helps build community, it gives a feeling of place,” Aggarwal says.

Aggarwal says there could be an opportunity for smart water solutions in small urban farms that also support dense, connected and healthy communities with better access to a local food supply, instead of relying on imported food.

“Part of changing the narrative is thinking about sustainable, resilient communities. We need to rethink the role of food production and agriculture in a diversified economy. I think we have to look for more synergies,” she says.

The Colorado River: a constant negotiation

A long dialogue tied to the future of Colorado River water allocations has often produced heated debate, particularly between the three major players — Arizona, California and Nevada.

It’s no secret that Arizona has benefited from water management foresight that dates to the early 1980s and allows the state to be less affected by the current drought. Phoenix, for example, reduced its water consumption 30 percent per capita in the past 30 years, even with explosive population growth.

The current Colorado River negotiations are very sensitive, explains Dave White, a professor in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development. However, there is greater cooperation today between states as Lake Mead levels drop ever closer to triggering a water shortage declaration by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The action would impose unprecedented federally mandated water-use cuts for all seven states involved.

“There’s definitely a trend toward increased collaboration between the seven Western states that share the allocation,” White says.

White is also the director of ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City, a National Science Foundation-funded program that supports an interdisciplinary approach to Colorado River Basin water and sustainability issues. The center provides research support and policy recommendations for negotiations among the seven Western states.

Part of the agreement’s complexity lies in water-rights holders agreeing to take curtailments now, while supplies are still adequate, in return for compensation. Tens of millions of dollars tied to those curtailments are in play, White explains.

“We’re optimistic, but this is a very complex set of agreements,” he adds.

To learn more about ASU water policy and innovation efforts, visit the Future H2O website. To contribute to ASU water conservation efforts such as Future H2O, go to GiveTo.ASU.edu/conservation or contact Linda Raish, associate director of development, natural sciences, at linda.raish@asu.edu.

Originally published at www.azcentral.com on March 3, 2017.

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