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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Civil and Environmental Engineering News – Fall 2015

Water at the Forefront

landscape with water and trees

Program grows to meet future challenges

Earlier this year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency. A woefully inadequate snowpack melted away by early April. Record warm temperatures and an unusually dry summer added to the challenges and meant less water was available throughout the state.

Welcome to the types of conditions one may expect in a warmer and changing climate later this century.

With its land-grant institutional history of providing practical solutions for the state, WSU’s water program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is at the forefront of addressing management and availability of water, which promises to be one of the region’s biggest future challenses.

“The only thing we can count on is there is no normal—there is so much variability in the system,” says Jennifer Adam, associate professor in the department and associate director of the State of Washington Water Research Center.

The WSU researchers are focused on human implications and real-world impacts. Whether dealing with drought, wildfires, or nitrogen pollution, many 21st century water challenges are related to management issues. WSU’s program aims to embed human decision-making into its modeling efforts, says Adam.

So, for example, WSU researchers were involved in a 2011 Washington State Department of Ecology study to look at predicted changes in surface water supplies in eastern Washington during the next 20 years. The comprehensive report was meant as a guide for developing new water supplies in eastern Washington. Led by Adam, the researchers developed a forecast for water supply and demand and assessed how future economic and environmental conditions, including water scarcity, will affect agricultural productivity. The researchers integrated three computer modeling programs, bringing together climate predictions, water management scenarios, and economics to better understand water supplies, demand for irrigation, unmet demand, and future crop yields.

To better understand how crop yields will be affected by climate change, the researchers worked as part of an interdisciplinary team that included Claudio Stöckle in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and Michael Brady in the School of Economics. Kirti Rajagopalan, a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Georgine Yorgey and Chad Kruger with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources also worked on the project.

The researchers are continuing their work and will soon publish the 2016 report. With sophisticated computer models, the researchers are taking a closer look at water supplies and the impact on specific crops, including dry land and irrigated crops. The 2016 forecast aims to provide scientific information to help state leaders make better decisions about where and how to fund water supply projects.

The water program has grown this year with the addition of two faculty members, Timothy Ginn and Jan Boll (see sidebar on page 9 of the newsletter PDF). Both researchers have strong leadership capabilities and a history of working as part of an interdisciplinary team on complex water issues, says Adam.

With their addition, the program will be able to conduct computer modeling of water issues at all scales, from 10 meters to 100 kilometer water basins, building better understanding of the interplay between water resources, the hydrological cycle, geomorphology, land-use at multiple scales, soil, water, vegetation, and nutrients. The additional faculty members also bring cohesiveness and demonstrated leadership to the program while spanning expertise in modeling, laboratory studies, and field work.

At the same time, the additional new faculty members also mean that the water program is able to teach a more comprehensive set of graduate and upper level courses in areas such as hydraulic design, sediment transport, subsurface reactive transport, and analytic hydrology.

“We’re excited and believe these changes are revolutionizing our program,” said Adam. “We look forward to seeing more interest in WSU from top-level students around the country.”