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Transformational solutions for water sustainability in the Colorado Basin and beyond.

In the Western USA’s Colorado River Basin, very dry conditions over the past 16 years have severely impacted water supply. NASA has predicted an 80% likelihood of a 30-year mega drought in the basin before the year 2100, and it’s possible this is already occurring.

While the engineered system in the Colorado basin has performed exceptionally well over the past 100 years—supplying more than 1 in 10 Americans with water, providing irrigation water to over 5.5 million acres of land, supporting at least 22 indigenous tribes, producing 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity and supporting over $1billion of tourism revenue—now, the natural system is not providing enough water to meet these demands.

There's that old adage, 'never let a crisis go to waste'

Prof Dave White, ASU

Professor Dave White from Arizona State University spoke about these challenges at the UNSW-GWI’s Seminar Series event on Thursday 9 October. He remarked that while potential impacts could be catastrophic, the crisis also provides an opportunity to transform outdated systems and policies which no longer support the needs of the basin.

“In the Colorado River reservoir, levels are at a historic low and current policy states that if storage drops below 1075 feet above sea level, this will trigger a major federal intervention in the water scheme,” said Prof White.

“There’s that old adage, ‘never let a crisis go to waste’. We have a policy window right now where we have an opportunity to advance reforms”.

Professor White and his team at the Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) at ASU have been studying sustainability science and making decisions under uncertainty in the city of Phoenix, and they believe that both incremental and transformative solutions are needed to guide transitions from the current state to a more sustainable future.

“Traditional water governance regimes are ill-equipped to respond to these challenges,” said Prof White.

Dave White, ASU and Nick Schofield, UNSW-GWI

“Managing transitions toward urban water sustainability will require innovative approaches to water governance that are anticipatory, adaptable, just, and evidence-supported, and that match the scale of the issue at hand.” 

White and his team at DCDC are looking at how climate change and land use change will affect water supply, and how and why major policy changes have been made historically. They are creating models which simulate plausible water supply options combined with novel policy decisions to maximise regional water security under a mega-drought scenario.

DCDC are also collating an inventory of 150 different 'solutions', which can be transferred and scaled globally through experimentation with stakeholders.

Like the Global Water Institute, ASU believes that integrative, inter-disciplinary solutions are needed for complex water issues, combining technological, social and ecological systems. ASU and UNSW, along with Kings College in London, are members of the PLuS alliance—a collaborative research initiative that contributes to a sustainable future by focusing on sustainability, global health, social justice, technology and innovation.


Image credit (top): Paul Hermans, 2012
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