Concerns over the future of water in the American West have prompted scientists from three Oregon universities to join together to study how climate change, human population growth and economic growth will impact water availability and use in the coming decades.
The five-year project, "Willamette Water 2100," will use Oregon's Willamette River basin as a test case from which to look at different future scenarios related to the region's water supplies. The work is being funded by a $4.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support work at Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Portland State University.
"How climate change will conspire with population growth to affect water quality and quantity in basins around the world is the defining issue of this century," said OSU's Jeff McDonnell, the lead investigator on the project. "By studying the complex interactions occurring in the Willamette Basin, we hope to ask questions that will be applicable to other parts of the United States."
The project addresses three main questions:
-- Where are human activity and climate change most likely to create conditions of water scarcity?
-- Where is water scarcity most likely to exert the greatest impact on ecosystems and communities?
-- What strategies would allow communities to prevent, mitigate or adapt to scarcity most successfully?
In answering these questions, the scientists will incorporate policy makers' outlooks and water users' viewpoints into a computer-modeling tool, called Envision, developed by OSU scientists in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Science. The Envision software will be used to create a range of alternative scenarios based on future water conditions, resource management and policy decisions.
"The way we've always managed water is based on stationarity – the past is the key to the future,” said McDonnell, head of OSU's Institute for Water and Watersheds and professor in the College of Forestry. “Under climate change the past is no longer a good road map for the future. Using Envision, we can take a holistic approach to the issues of water management and availability, and begin to imagine a future under altered precipitation and temperature regimes."
The project builds on the award winning Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas, created in 2002 by researchers at the UO and OSU. By moving forward from the platform created by the atlas, the researchers and interested stakeholders will be able to visualize and evaluate management strategies for preventing, mitigating and adapting to future water scarcities.
"We have expert knowledge related to almost every facet of the Willamette basin water system," said McDonnell. "We can use this knowledge to develop a transferable tool capable of benefiting other basins and other water managers as they confront their own issues of water scarcity."