When water use policies and practices change, they produce a ripple effect in communities, impacting everything from what types of crops a farmer will grow to how many people will move in or out of a town.
That’s why Kansas State University is pooling experts from multiple disciplines to understand how these changes affect people in communities that depend on the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas.
David Steward, associate professor of civil engineering, is leading the team of K-State experts in fields as diverse as agronomy, computer science and sociology. Using a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the team is developing a scientific understanding of how changes in policy and water use practices could sustain the aquifer without jeopardizing the viability of the Kansas towns and people depending on it as an abundant source of water.
The interdisciplinary team is creating tools that can predict the consequences that water policy decisions would have on all aspects of a community, from the viability of the local economy to land use practices. These tools will help policymakers understand the how their decisions about the Ogallala Aquifer could play out for people living in communities that depend on the water source.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is develop information that can be used in risk assessment,” Steward said. “Some of the policies that we will be looking at are rules the state already has in place that could be enforced now. We’re trying to understand what the impacts of those are, not just on the water supply, crops and cattle production, but also on people.”
The Ogallala Aquifer, which lies underneath southwest Kansas, is one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water. The water source offsets the region’s dry climate and supports irrigated crops, the meat packing industry and the Kansans for whom such agricultural practices are their livelihood and the backbone of their towns’ economies.
There are places where the aquifer will not be able to sustain the industries and people now dependent on the water supply. These areas of decline are where the interdisciplinary team of K-State researchers is focusing its study of the intersection of people and the water supply.
The research team includes two agronomy professors, Scott Staggenborg and Stephen Welch, who are studying how water policy changes outcomes like crop yield. Jeffrey Peterson, associate professor of agricultural economics, and Bill Golden, a research assistant professor, are examining the economic consequences. Peterson is studying how changes could impact practices like what types of crops farmers can grow while Golden is modeling the effect of water policy changes on the structure of local economies.
Joe Aistrup, professor of political science, is giving the team the policymakers’ perspective, while Laszlo Kulcsar, associate professor of sociology, is contributing information about how water policies could affect population shifts in the region. Eric Bernard is an associate professor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning. He is using geospatial data to look at how communities make land use decisions.
And bringing all of the data together is Daniel Andresen, associate professor of computing and information science. Using the state’s largest academic research supercomputer, K-State’s Beocat, Andresen will be able to run policy scenarios and show their outcomes in the various categories.
This project builds on work by K-State’s Consortium for Global Research on Water-Based Economies, an interdisciplinary team formed in 2001.
“We assembled because each one of us was dealing with something important in the area of water, and we all realized that we had limitations in our disciplinary perspectives,” Steward said. “We have been learning from one another to analyze a water system from various disciplinary perspectives, and we’ve been able to develop some cross-discipline approaches because of it.”
[Source: Kansas State University news release]