Droughts and Data: How to Manage Water Out West

On Friday, February 26, Dr. Derek Kauneckis presented his latest water-related research at the second CE3 Brownbag Lunch of the semester, organized by CE3 and the Voinovich School’s Environmental Studies Program.

His talk, entitled “Water Out West: Using Decision Sciences to Understand Complex Socio-ecological Systems,” explored the complex governance and institutional design challenges that water resource management faces in the western United States, now further complicated by climate change.

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An associate professor with the School’s Environmental Studies program, Dr. Kauneckis received his Ph.D. in public policy from Indiana University at Bloomington and served as the director of graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at University of Nevada, Reno before coming to the Voinovich School in January 2015.

His latest project, Water for the Seasons, is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This 5-year project, in collaboration with the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute, is “a research and outreach program that partners scientists with community stakeholders” and looks specifically at Nevada’s Truckee-Carson River System as “a model for snow-fed arid-land river systems across the American West,” according to the Academy for the Environment at University of Nevada, Reno.

With the infamous California drought now entering its fifth year, a majority of western states have already experienced earlier springs and shorter winters. The significant reduction in available snowpack, as is the case in the Sierra Nevada mountain region feeding the Truckee-Carson River System via Lake Tahoe, causes tension among the many stakeholders vying for the same water resources.

“The goal of this project is to understand how to build more resilience into our western water systems,” Dr. Kauneckis said at the brownbag event. “We know that climate change is expected to add increased variability…and what that means is we’re going to get in the West less snowfall and more rain.”

By utilizing “collaborative modeling” that draws from climate, operational and groundwater models of the same river system—and is then enhanced by information from decision agents who directly influence the future of the river system and its use—Dr. Kauneckis and his fellow researchers can then build a unique, multidimensional picture of the entire river system. The project has already obtained data collected by the stakeholders themselves—in this case, self-reported behaviors on water management practices from 66 representatives along the river system.

“We’re asking explicitly,” Dr. Kauneckis said. “We want to know from the users on that system, ‘What is a hydrological threshold that you care about? When do you think the system changes in a way that challenges you to manage what you do? When do you think it fundamentally changes into a whole different river system?'”

This focus on designing more resilient river systems couples human and natural resource systems into a single, complex ecological environment. Humans, says Kauneckis, are the fundamental change-agents when it comes to modern-day river systems and that there are “big implications” when those water reserves are not managed efficiently or are otherwise depleted.

“This is end of Year 1,” Dr. Kauneckis said of the data illustrated at the end of his talk. “This is part of the research, to say, ‘How can we better deliver the science for people who want to use it?’ We have all these water and climate models sitting on shelves, and they’re [just] really hard to understand.”

The collaborative process used in this project helps to humanize the science in the hope of more efficient and ultimately more sustainable water management practices in the drought-susceptible years to come.

For more information about the CE3 Brownbag Lunch Series, please visit: https://www.ohio.edu/ce3/news-events/events.cfm.

This story also appears on Ohio University’s CE3 portal