Dr. Reagan Waskom, Director of Colorado Water Institute (CWI) and Chair of the Colorado State University Water Center, is deeply invested in the water resources challenges faced by states in the western U.S. The CWI holds a unique place at Colorado State University, as it coordinates water programs across the whole CSU system, directly answering to the CSU Vice President for Engagement/Extension Director. “This allows us to have an impact through all eight colleges on campus and the CSU Extension water program. Our mission to translate scholarship in ways meaningful to people on the ground gives us a strong orientation to water management practitioners,” Waskom explains (http://www.cwi.colostate.edu/).
CWI staff develop and support projects specifically designed to connect with people in the field. “Academicians can forget that science is only one dimension of practical concerns. How do we bring science and engineering into the human dimensions of water resources, from on the ground work to upper management, at local, national, and international levels?” says Waskom. One recent workshop, Shepherding Water in Colorado for Colorado River Compact Security, brought together people from state government, water providers, conservation districts, irrigation districts, and municipal agencies to discuss Colorado River Compact issues such as compliance, curtailment and water security. Small groups shared concerns and brainstormed next steps for effective water shepherding to meet compact compliance. Another outreach, Water Literate Leaders of Northern Colorado, educates community leaders interested in political office. This program builds effective water resources leadership by immersing attendees in regional water issues from agricultural, urban, environmental, recreational, and business/economics perspectives. Recently, CWI convened a set of meetings between landowners, managers, conservation groups, attorneys and engineers to explore how the concept “use it or lose it” (a phrase in common use in the western U.S., meaning the perception that one’s water rights may be lost if not consistently used to fullest extent) has typically been addressed by statutes and administration. A special report was then published to inform effective water rights policy development, management, and communication among stakeholders, and improve cooperation on conservation initiatives (for more information, read “‘Use It or Lose It’ in Colorado Water Law,” Issue #147 of The Water Report at http://www.thewaterreport.com/Issues%20145%20to%20148.html).
Western water management typically involves transboundary negotiation, between municipalities, regions, states, tribes and even countries. Thus, effective research and extension programs require cooperation among multiple institutions and multiple disciplines. Waskom describes the challenges in relation to the Colorado River: “You have the Colorado River Basin, climate change, structural factors, economics, governance, and management concerns. There are seven states and Mexico in the mix…and the question on the ground is: ‘If we take your advice on management, what difference will it make to our livelihood, to our community?’ Our extension specialists’ challenge is to objectively and respectfully infuse science into a very political situation. And every day we have to deliver our obligations to downstream states – it’s like playing hardball and poker at the same time!” The Colorado River watershed is of high priority to the CWI and other western water institutes and agencies. Research and outreach efforts aim to mitigate the supply crisis faced by nearly 40 million stakeholders dependent upon this important water resource. Recently, the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin states came to agreement on a final review draft of the 2018 Drought Contingency Plan, important forward progress in a critical situation. To learn more about the Colorado River crisis, visit the following:
Stakes are high in western U.S. water issues partially due to irrigation-dependent agricultural production, a prime economic driver. Resulting political tensions can create daunting situations in which to conduct research. Waskom described one water study which took place along the South Platte River. He was awarded a grant by the Colorado Legislature to study conditions and make recommendations to the state at a time when thousands of wells in the south Platte region were being curtailed due to policy changes. “There were potentially millions of dollars of economic impact involved, and my research was the main focal point. It was extremely tense – it is a real problem for scientists put in that position, trying to be transparent, and working a water problem so polarized.” Waskom recommends that groups of water resources scientists work together on such projects so that no one person is a point of focus, and there is insulation to allow for deliberate, objective study of data. “Whole state economics wrap around the value of water in the West, and there are thousands of water providers and managers involved, many layers of governance. Most research studies don’t have to deal with all that!”
The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is another high stake water problem faced by multiple states in the west-central United States. In cooperation with the CWI, Colorado State University currently leads a major USDA/NIFA funded research project called the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (OWCAP). The numbers of people and institutions involved make the OWCAP a perfect demonstration laboratory for the challenges and opportunities that accompany complex, transboundary water research and management. Dr. Waskom co-chairs the effort with project leader Dr. Meagan Schipanski of CSU Soil and Crop Sciences, with a team comprised of approximately 70 researchers, extension specialists, students, and post-doctorates from nine institutions and hub research stations in six states overlying the aquifer (see detailed map at http://ogallalawater.org/project-scope/). As Dr. Waskom describes, the process of defining all the moving parts has been fascinating. “There is a commitment…Crop modelers, groundwater modelers, economic modelers…are trying to work together, but the puzzle pieces don’t always fit,” Waskom says. “You have to let that ‘ah ha!’ moment happen – that they thought they understood each other, but then realize they were not always even talking about the same thing! It comes down to: what question are we each trying to answer, in order to come to a big answer together” (To learn more about OWCAP, go to https://www.ogallalawater.org/).
What lies ahead for western U.S. water sustainability, where supply is growing scarcer in lands producing vast quantities of the world’s food? “We are overdrawing the account. We need to cut our [water] spending, or make more. Reorganization is badly needed, but the questions is, can we do this without a crisis?” Waskom wonders. “The Ogallala is like a train traveling toward impact at 2 miles an hour, we can see the wreck coming, but there is some time to make adjustments. With the Colorado River, the train wreck is more imminent.” Yet he is hopeful. “Our students watching all this complexity [in OWCAP and similar cooperative groups] are going to go farther. These are great wicked problems – they are generational.” His advice to others working with similar challenges? “Listen, learn, speak the language of the practitioner. It is a retraining in humility for the ivory tower researcher – no room for ego!”