PULLMAN, Wash. – A team led by Washington State University will study how to better coordinate and manage the food, water and energy needs of the Columbia River basin and make the region more resilient to a changing climate as part of a $3 million grant cosponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The interdisciplinary project (https://fewstorage.wsu.edu/) includes faculty from WSU Pullman and Vancouver in partnership with researchers from University of Idaho, University of Utah, Utah State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
A model for resource management
A changing climate and population growth affect food, energy and water systems. As part of the grant, the researchers are studying how these systems interact and how to optimize resource management and technology innovations, such as smart systems and energy storage technology, to deal with the expected shocks and pressures associated with global change.
The project will allow the researchers to quantify for the first time the innovations that are most effective and make the best use of resources, which can then be used for developing better policies. The researchers will work with communities and other stakeholders to develop and adopt the most effective strategies.
They hope the work will eventually be applied to other river basins across the country and the world.
Critical resources in global change
“Recognizing and balancing how technological and institutional solutions complement, substitute for or conflict with one another within and between sectors will be critically important for identifying appropriate strategies for managing existing and future tradeoffs and conflicts,” said Julie Padowski, clinical assistant professor with WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach (CEREO) and state Water Research Center (WRC) and a co-leader of the project.
The Columbia River starts in Canada and makes its way to the Pacific Ocean as the border of Washington and Oregon, but the basin includes all of Idaho and portions of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and Utah. Climate change is reducing snow storage and changing the times of peak and low water flow in the region.
At the same time, the area continues to grow with substantial new demands on water and energy resources. The basin includes 400 dams, which generate about 12,000 megawatts a year or more than two-thirds of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity. It is one of the most highly managed basins in the U.S. with a wide range of competing water users.
Small watershed, less reservoir storage
The river basin is ideal for the project because it is a huge supplier of food, energy and water, and the resources are tightly connected. The basin also has a limited storage system. So, while some larger watersheds have enough reservoir storage to hold over a year’s amount of water, the Columbia basin can only store about 30 percent of its annual water in reservoirs.
“This is why the snowpack is so important in this basin – we rely on it to store our winter precipitation for use in the summer,” said Jennifer Adam, associate professor in civil and environmental engineering who is leading the project. “With declining snowpacks due to warming, we are losing this natural storage and relying more heavily on managed storage.”
“Understanding the interdependencies of our nation’s food, energy and water systems is critical to keeping them safe and working, and we need to build strategies that will improve our overall resilience,” she added.
Padowski and her colleagues developed the project idea last fall after conducting an NSF-sponsored workshop on food, energy and water. The researchers have established a collaborative initiative called the Food-Energy-Water Center Collaborative (FEW2C) involving CEREO, the WRC and the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Columbia basin ‘ideal test bed’
The project, which will be interdisciplinary with research expertise ranging from engineering and agriculture to law and philosophy, covers everything from the highly conceptual to real-world concrete ideas, said Stephanie Hampton, director of CEREO.
“This project tackles one of our nation’s biggest challenges in the face of a changing climate – managing food, energy and water demands under rapidly changing conditions,” she said. “The Columbia River basin makes an ideal test bed to understand these issues.”
The researchers have been studying the needs of the Columbia basin for several years. Many were involved in writing two WRC supply and demand forecast reports for the Washington State legislature in 2011 and 2016.
As part of the grant, the researchers will integrate many of the models that are already being used to better understand the complex interactions throughout the basin and evaluate how possible innovations, such as precision agriculture or new types of energy storage batteries, might have an impact.
Find a list of project researchers at https://fewstorage.wsu.edu/people/.