W4190: Management and Policy Challenges in a Water-Scarce World

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

W4190: Management and Policy Challenges in a Water-Scarce World

Duration: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

Urban growth in areas across the United States and rising demand for environmental goods and services place increased pressure on limited water resources. Much of the U.S. has experienced higher temperatures, increased variability in precipitation, and prolonged droughts in recent decades, and climate models forecast these trends to continue into the future (Wuebbles et al. 2017). Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack in the western U.S. and depletion of major aquifers increase water management challenges. It is no surprise to see a recent policy statement of the American Meteorological Society observe that, “the provision of adequate fresh-water resources for people and ecosystems will be one of the most critical and potentially contentious issues facing society and governments at all levels during the 21st century (American Meteorological Society 2017).”

New approaches are needed to resolve the water management challenges. The goal of these new approaches should be to efficiently use available water, and to minimize damage to human communities and the ecosystems on which they depend from flood, drought, and impaired water quality. General strategies to achieve these goals are to increase conservation and reallocate water more efficiently among competing uses, by using technologies and creating institutions that encourage efficient water use. These strategies require improved understanding of the complex relationships between water resource and human systems, how individuals and groups of individuals evaluate trade-offs and respond to incentives, and assessment of the physical and economic impacts associated with alternative technologies and institutions.

This application is for the renewal of the multistate committee W3190, whose members are well-equipped to conduct research and propose solutions to water management challenges. Current and past members of W3190 and its earlier iterations have a long history of collaborative research and engagement on water management issues. Recent examples from W3190 include analysis of water marketing as a way to extend water availability (Ghosh et al. 2014; Hansen et al. 2015); integrated models of hydrology and economics to better capture the relationship between bio-physical processes and socio-economic factors (Guilfoos et al. 2016; Hrozencik et al. 2016; Maas et al. (2016); and analysis of alternative groundwater management strategies, for example extraction limits, over portions of the Ogallala Aquifer (Keeler et al. 2018; Silva et al. 2018).The research proposed below for the new multistate committee W4190 addresses a variety of water management issues, with the overarching goal of increasing society’s net benefit from limited water availability. Multistate committee W4190’s suite of research questions and methods will document relationships between water resource and human systems, and test the feasibility and economic efficiency of innovative water management practices, policies, and institutions.

One challenge of water management and related research is that relationships between water resource and human systems vary considerably across space and time. Solutions developed for one location must be adapted to fit climatic, economic, and social conditions in another location; a successful solution must also often be adapted over time as conditions in a particular location change, too. Further, advances in measurement technology, computing power, and research methods from a variety of physical and social sciences increase the tools at our disposal for addressing and resolving conflict and expand our potential to better understand, evaluate, and improve on existing water management strategies. This W4190 proposal consequently includes new themes, which reflect emerging challenges facing water managers and recent methodological innovations.

First, this proposal contains an increased emphasis on documenting interlinkages between water resource and human systems. Water resource and human systems are impacted by changes in climate and/or other anthropogenic disturbances. Changes occurring at both global and local/regional scales include: changes in vegetation and land use/land cover attributable to both climatic and anthropogenic factors (Nicholls et al. 2007); shifts in seasonal climate patterns that might be overlooked in local or regional climate assessments (Gitau 2016), and, changes in occurrences and severity of extreme events (Collins et al. 2013). Extreme events are particularly concerning as these pose the greatest challenges with respect to associated impacts on water resource and human systems (Zhang et al. 2011; Klein-Tank et al. 2009). It is impossible to evaluate alternative technologies and policies effectively without a robust understanding of these interlinkages and impacts.

Second is a greater emphasis on the connections and interactions between water scarcity and water quality. Intensive agriculture and input use are on the rise, placing pressure on water availability and quality in many locations. For example, many coastal as well as inland aquifers are affected by saltwater intrusion when aquifer levels decline (Barlow and Reichard 2010). Best management practices (BMPs) are often able to improve water quality and conserve water quantity in tandem (Meierdiercks et al. 2017). Improved conjunctive management of surface and groundwater may also conserve water quantity and improve water quality. Alternative water sources (for example stormwater and wastewater use in irrigation (McNabb 2017)) may relieve pressure altogether on existing sources. Policymakers increasingly request information on these relationships to help them address water scarcity and improve water quality.

A third and final recurring theme throughout this proposal is the increased application of methods from behavioral and experimental economics to water management questions. This committee has historically been heavily populated with economists whose primary area of focus has been evaluation of trade-offs, individual decision-making, and the structuring of incentives to encourage efficient allocation of water resources. What behavioral and experimental economics contribute to this continued focus is the recognition that individuals and groups of individuals do not always behave rationally, or in accordance with a textbook model of profit-maximization (Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Thaler 1980). A number of the projects described below allow for the possibility that less water would be used and at lower cost through use of alternative structures, for example peer benchmarking, rather than economic incentives.

The changing composition of this multistate committee over the years reflects the dynamic nature of water resource challenges in the U.S. Research undertaken through the committee was originally focused on improving water allocation and management under conditions of scarcity prevalent in the western U.S. Over the past ten years, however, researchers in the historically water-rich eastern U.S. have joined the group, as stakeholders and policymakers in these areas begin to grapple with water scarcity and quality groundwater availability. This transition in membership has contributed to the shift, described above, from near-exclusive focus on water scarcity to a broader recognition of the importance of water quality to water resource and human systems.

Stakeholders. The committee’s core stakeholders are state and federal policymakers, water managers, and practitioners. Many of the projects described below are motivated by requests for information and analysis made of W3190 members by stakeholders, and undertaken with the explicit goal of providing local and regional water managers and policymakers with tools that will strengthen the resiliency of their stakeholder communities and improve their ability to manage water resources in the face of long-term drought and climate uncertainty. The research will often be undertaken collaboratively with extension personnel, local conservation district, or other agency staff. At the conclusion of the research, W4190 members will develop and deliver outreach presentations and publications for stakeholders that distill research findings into practical, science-based management tools and policy recommendations. These tools will empower stakeholders to objectively dissect complex water issues and correctly weigh benefits and costs of alternative options.

Importance of the Work. The research proposed for W4190 is often undertaken in response to stakeholder requests for information and analysis. Not by coincidence, it also addresses national and regional priorities for water management. The USGS Committee on Water Science and Research recently commissioned a study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to identify the highest priority water resource and science challenges for the U.S. over the next 25 years. The NAS report, compiled based in part on input from USGS stakeholders (federal, state, tribal, and local agencies, private companies, and individuals) identifies ten research questions, five of which relate directly to the research proposed for W4190 below: 1) How do human activities affect water quantity and quality; 2) How does changing climate affect water quality, quantity, and reliability, as well as water-related hazards and extreme events; 3) How can long-term water-related risk management be improved; 4) How do institutions and governance and institutional resilience impact the quantity and quality of water; and 5) How can competing uses for water resources be managed and maintained to sustain healthy communities and ecosystems in a changing world. These research questions are at the heart of the W4190 proposal.

Advantages of Multistate Collaboration on Water Management. Research and outreach on water management lend themselves naturally to multistate collaborations first and foremost because rivers and groundwater aquifers do not respect state boundaries. Policymakers from adjacent states regularly work together to manage shared water resources; water resource researchers similarly collaborate across state boundaries to address shared water management challenges. The collaborative relationships facilitated by W3190 also improve the flow of information and ideas across state boundaries. Tools implemented successfully in one location can rarely be applied entirely to other locations without some adaptation to local circumstances, but inspiration for management approaches and institutions can often be found by examining what has worked well in other locations. This cross-fertilization and testing of new ideas also improves stakeholder engagement and facilitates transmission of knowledge from one generation of researchers to the next through mentorship of junior members.

Technical Feasibility of the Proposed Research. The proposed research has a high degree of technical feasibility. Our multistate team includes water professionals with rigorous training in conceptual, theoretical, and applied aspects of bio-physical sciences and water resource economics. Team members also have extensive experience analyzing water management practices, policies, and institutions. Current membership of W3190 includes 55 researchers from 26 states (half of which are located east of the 100th meridian, a region which has not had severe water quantity concerns in the past), USDA-ARS, USDA/FS, and USDC-NOAA; we anticipate many current W3190 members will sign up for W4190. Agricultural and natural resource economists comprise the largest portion of the team, followed by soil scientists. Solutions to water management challenges are often inherently interdisciplinary. We enthusiastically welcome colleagues from irrigation engineering, agronomy, and hydrology and water quality, as well as other social sciences besides economics.

Impacts of Improved Water Management. Without innovation in water management policies and approaches, water-related conflicts between states, water sources (ground versus surface), water uses (for example agricultural, urban, and environmental) and users will continue to intensify and expand. The tools developed and analyzed in the proposed research will help stakeholders to objectively dissect complex water issues and correctly weigh benefits and costs of alternative options. If implemented, policy recommendations will stretch limited water resources further at lower cost and with reduced negative impacts on the environment and other water users. Policy recommendations will help resolve conflicts between water users and makes communities more resilient to climate change and prolonged drought.

Related, Current and Previous Work

Multistate project W-3190, titled “Management and Policy Challenges in a Water-Scarce World,” is the immediate predecessor to this proposal. It was authorized for the period October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2019. Scientists participating in W-3190 addressed three objectives: 1) characterize bio-physical, socio-economic, and political/legal factors (and interactions of these factors) that influence water-use decisions and related market or non-market outcomes; 2) develop or enhance quantitative methods to address emerging water management issues; and 3) evaluate and compare alternative water management strategies and institutions. Activities, accomplishments, and impacts for each of these objectives are reviewed briefly below.

W3190 Objective 1: Characterize bio-physical, socio-economic, and political/legal factors and interactions of these factors. The group made multiple contributions to characterizing the bio-physical processes and connecting them to socio-economic factors. W3190 researchers showed how key properties of the physical water system, economic factors, and institutional arrangements across the western U.S. affect the ability of users to create effective management strategies and institutions to govern groundwater (Edwards 2016; Ayres et al. 2018; Edwards and Smith 2018) and surface water (Edwards and Libecap 2015; Ge et al. 2018; Edwards and Smith 2018). A set of similarly broad studies identified the features of local water markets across the western United States most conducive to helping communities address water scarcity in times of drought (Hansen et al. 2015a) and described ways in which water markets in practice have fallen short of theoretical expectations (Hansen 2015). Hansen (2016) documented existing challenges to meeting current and future water demands in the western United States and outlined current strategies (including but not limited to water markets) for addressing them. W3190 researchers also developed models that expand the understanding and use of economic/hydrologic modeling and groundwater management (Guilfoos et al. 2013; Guilfoos et al. 2016; Kim and Guilfoos 2016). These models relate economic efficiency to spatial heterogeneity in groundwater management. Merrill and Guilfoos (2017) explored how the bio-physical aspects of stochastic rainfall affect the slow depletion of an exhaustible resource, providing additional tools for economists and water managers to evaluate groundwater policies.

W3190 members also undertook a number of location-specific empirical studies under Objective 1 that were focused on the characterization of water processes, such as droughts and water flows, and the response of water users to weather variability and changes in climate conditions. Hendricks (2018) shows that a substantial portion of climate damages are due to water stress through greater evapotranspiration demand. Colorado researchers conducted research on linkages between climate change, drought, fire, and water-based recreation (Schoengold, Shrestha, and Eiswerth 2014), assessed the role of economics in managing invasive species with consequences for wildfire, grazing, and water availability and use (Eiswerth, Epanchin-Niell, Rollins, and Taylor 2016), and aquatic and terrestrial invasive species in general (Eiswerth, Lawley, and Taylor 2018). Other W3190 researchers from Colorado and Idaho investigated how irrigated agricultural producers respond to changes in growing season water supply availability indicators (e.g., snowpack) and unanticipated weather shocks during the growing season, specifically impacts to crop choice, acreage planted, and water use. Others evaluated the relationship between climate conditions and irrigation demand at the intensive and extensive margin for the High Plains Aquifer region (Silva et al. 2018). Results were used to predict the impact of climate change on land and water use. Results show that without policy intervention, climate change is expected to lead to an increase of 50% in groundwater depletion.

Several projects undertaken by W3190 researchers under Objective 1 focused more directly on individual’s water use and decision-making. Researchers in Minnesota analyzed choice experiment and survey data to estimate growers’ willingness to accept subsidy payments to grow cover and perennial crops (Levers et al. 2018a,b). Researchers in Missouri examined factors affecting the adoption of water-conserving technologies and practices by homeowners (drought-tolerant plants: Fan, McCann and Qin 2017) and farmers (pressure irrigation and scientific irrigation scheduling: Fan and McCann, forthcoming). Complementing the adoption research (and foreshadowing the trend towards broader use of behavioral economics), Arocha and McCann (2013) found that the design of a dual-flush toilet could be fruitfully examined using behavioral economics principles.

W3190 Objective 2: Develop or enhance quantitative methods to address emerging water management issues. Water researchers must be acquainted with available data to construct informative models that successfully simulate complex real-world behavior. Researchers in Indiana determined changes in daily and seasonal rainfall extremes and evaluated weather generator effectiveness in capturing extreme events. Since stochastic generators produce random outputs, the researchers determined the suitable number of realizations (simulation runs) for generating weather data to be at least 25, so as to obtain suitable representation of weather for a given location (Guo et al. 2017). In addition, an evaluation of the weather generator CLIGEN—for which an updated database has been developed by USDA-ARS in Indiana—showed that the generator was suitable for providing precipitation estimates for use with modelling urban runoff or urbanization effects (Chen et al. 2018). W3190 researchers have also used ‘detected structures’ to link anthropogenic and climatic forcings with hydrologic processes of interest, such as droughts, stream flows, aquifer levels, water quality, and water-related ecosystem services (Huffaker et al. 2017). Results guide construction and validation of hydro-economic models useful for sound public decision-making. One such hydro-economic model was developed by researchers in Minnesota and California, to analyze a leasing scheme to transfer water from agriculture to improve environmental flows to the Salton Sea  (Levers, Skaggs, and Schwabe 2018). W3190 researchers also assessed the dynamic effects of alternative policy strategies on water resources in the presence of climate change and technological innovations (Quintana Ashwell et al. 2018; Peterson 2018).

W3190 committee members also pushed at existing quantitative methods by using experiments to investigate water management issues. Understanding water users’ possible reaction to a new policy can save time, resources and social damage if the policy can be tested in the lab instead of being implemented directly on a regional or national scale (Tellez-Foster et al. 2017; Tellez-Foster et al. 2018). W3190 researchers developed laboratory economics experiments to evaluate how physical characteristics of groundwater resources, primarily the speed of the lateral flow of water, can impact entry and use of these resources. Experiments also evaluated the impact of information and management policies on entry and groundwater use, the psychological aspects of common pool resource behavior to understand sustainability of water use decisions (Broznya et al. 2018), and the ability of innovative water market contracts to improve efficiency (Hansen et al. 2014). Researchers also developed and utilized a laboratory experiment to explore how threshold uncertainty, whether due to incomplete science or stakeholders not being aware of existing science, impacts the use of common property resources. Results advanced our understanding of the value of research that helps eliminate scientific uncertainty surrounding resource availability (Maas et al. 2017).

W3190 Objective 3: Evaluate and compare alternative water management strategies and institutions. Much research undertaken through objective 3 focused on groundwater management in states overlying the Ogallala Aquifer. Researchers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas compared groundwater management policies and outcomes across the High Plains Aquifer (Guerrero et al. 2017; Schoengold and Brozović 2018). W3190 researchers also helped to develop an integrated modeling framework that couples agronomic, economic, and hydrologic models to predict the future economic impact of groundwater use in the Republican River Basin of Colorado under baseline conditions and under specific groundwater management scenarios (Monger et al. 2017). Multiple analysis of preferences for alternative management strategies were conducted which contributed to the design and adoption of groundwater management policies in the region (Hrozencik et al. 2017). Researchers also evaluated the impacts of local governance in Kansas that imposed allocations on irrigation water withdrawals to preserve the life the Ogallala Aquifer (Drysdale and Hendricks 2018). Results indicate that farmers respond mostly by reducing water use on the same irrigated acreage, so the economic impact of the restriction was smaller than other programs that induce farmers to convert from irrigated to non-irrigated production. Researchers also measured the impact of groundwater allocation policies (extraction limits) on groundwater extraction and electricity consumed for irrigation in Nebraska (Keeler, Mieno, and Schoengold 2018). Results show that extraction limits can reduce total extraction, but the impact depends on precipitation levels and policy limits. Importantly, irrigators reduce extraction significantly below the maximum limit set under regulation.

Research under this objective also tackled evaluation of alternative water management strategies and institutions in areas beyond the Ogallala Aquifer. Researchers in Arkansas evaluated tradeoffs related to the use of on-farm reservoirs to improve surface water quality (Kovacs et al. 2014), policies to increase groundwater recharge (Kovacs et al. 2015a), and tradeoffs between groundwater conservation and farm profitability (Kovacs et al. 2015b). They also examined the economic feasibility of particular irrigation technology and infrastructure investments such as tail-water recovery systems (Kovacs and Mancini 2017), soil moisture sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles (West and Kovacs 2017), and off-farm infrastructure for water shipments (Kovacs and Durand-Morat 2017). W3190 researchers also conducted a comparative analysis of water laws and water institutions in several midwestern states and nearby western states (Fan and McCann 2017). This research has been delivered to personnel in the Department of Natural Resources in Missouri for use in their water planning process. Even further afield, researchers in Nebraska and Indiana compared alternative cost-sharing rules for groundwater using a set of irrigation units in Mexico (Sun, Sesmero, and Schoengold 2016). W3190 researchers and international collaborators damages of long-term droughts on surface and GW-dependent ecosystem health in the Jucar River Basin in Mexico (Estaban and Dinar 2016; Kahil et al. 2016) and the effects of policies that support governance and cooperation in managing these resources (Kahil et al. 2015).

W3190 researchers also focused on the of alternative water management strategies for water-based ecosystem service provision in particular. W3190 members examined how the design of payment for environmental service contracts can lead to low enrollment due to high transaction costs (Peterson et al. 2015) and examined the tradeoffs between ecosystem service provision and farm profitability (Kovacs and West 2016, West and Kovacs 2017, Kovacs et al. 2017). Colorado members developed a suite of three models determining optimal payment allocations across land managers by payments for water-based ecosystem services (PWES) programs (Eiswerth and van Kooten 2017), and estimated net economic benefits of programs for improving water-based ecosystem services by enhancing water quality and reducing aquatic invasive species (Breffle, Eiswerth, Muralidharan, and Thornton 2015). Colorado researchers also served on the Stakeholder Committee for a PWES program, conducted research targeted at specific knowledge gaps identified by the program, and initiated work directly addressing information needs of a multistate (CO-NE-WY), collaborative, adaptive watershed management program and its partners. W3190 researchers and a team of undergraduate students in Utah developed a new quantitative method to evaluate the costs and benefits of different water conservation methods in Utah (Edwards et al. 2017) and used it to evaluate new market institutions for enhancing flows for ecosystem protection (Edwards and Null, forthcoming 2019). Researchers and Extension specialists in Wyoming explored the feasibility of a payment for ecosystem services market in the Upper Colorado River Basin in southwestern Wyoming for water- and terrestrial-based ecosystem services. (Hansen et al. 2015b; Hansen et al. 2018) and then established a PES marketplace for promising resources. Researchers shared findings and outreach materials with agency officials in California, Utah and Wyoming, municipal water utilities, state policymakers, and Indian tribes.

The above sample of W3190’s research and extension efforts highlights just some of the team’s outputs, accomplishments and impacts. In addition to these research and outreach activities, W3190 and WERA1020: Western Region Multistate Coordinating Committee on Water Resources jointly planned a conference on western water management in Salt Lake City in 2015. The conference (title: Water Management Strategies for Addressing Long-Term Drought and Climate Uncertainty) was funded by USDA-NIFA (conference grant #1005980) and co-sponsored by Western States Water Council, an organization comprised of governor-appointed representatives from 18 western states. The conference featured expert panels comprised of policymakers, practitioners, and researchers and covered a variety of complex water management issues common to the western U.S. The conference was also structured to maximize the formal and informal exchange of ideas among participants. Participants were highly complimentary of the degree of interaction and cross-pollination of ideas they observed and experienced at the conference. The conference resulted in a special issue of Water (2017 Vol. 9 Issue 3; ISSN 2073-4441). “Water Management Strategies for Addressing Long-Term Drought and Climate Uncertainty,” to which several W3190 members contributed.

A special issue of Western Economic Forum was devoted to water management in the western U.S. (“The Future of Water Management in the West,” editors: Dana Hoag and David Zilberman). Six of the seven articles were written by W3190 committee members. The entire issue is open source to increase visibility and impact. W3190 member Peterson (MN) also co-edited a volume on competition for and management of water resources in the U.S. and Europe (Ziolkowska and Peterson 2016). Eight of the approximately 25 chapters featured the work of W3190 members.

W3190 members have devoted considerable effort to generating and disseminating new knowledge that is relevant to water managers and decision makers. Their collective goal has been to positively impact water policy and use, and evidence suggests their efforts have been successful. W3190 members also strive to impact their respective disciplines positively. One indicator of their scholarly productivity is the large amount of new knowledge on water issues they have published in both academic and applied outlets. Between 2014 and 2018, W-3190 members produced well over 250 water-related journal articles, extension bulletins, popular press articles, and other reports targeted to stakeholder groups, as well as numerous other outputs (See Appendix W3190 publications for a detailed listing). Not all of these outputs are directly attributable to multistate efforts; however, many have benefited from cross-fertilization of group members’ research ideas, methods, and outreach activities. This is facilitated, in large part, by the group’s long history of meeting once a year to exchange ideas. This regular meeting has allowed members to build and maintain strong professional ties, which generates new ideas, new opportunities, enhanced productivity, and cutting-edge work on water issues.

In summary, W3190 members have made significant progress towards meeting the project’s objectives. Additional work is required, however, to address and extend some of the complex objectives originally proposed. New techniques and data have also become available that can enhance our ability to address existing and emerging water management questions. The objectives in the current application represent the natural extension of this work and stem from collaborative efforts of project members.

To minimize W4190’s redundancy with other active multistate projects, a CRIS search was conducted to identify related projects. The search identified eight multistate projects that would complement, but not duplicate the activities we propose. W4190’s efforts will focus on water allocation and management issues in water-short regions of the U.S. This includes the development of better models for understanding and informing these issues, and the assessment of alternative water policies and institutions. In contrast, four of the eight other multistate projects focus on water quality. Three projects focus on technological aspects of irrigation scheduling, crop water use, microirrigation, and associated climate data. The remaining project is a coordinating committee focused on creating linkages between existing groups of water researchers and practitioners.  These related projects are briefly reviewed below and their potential synergies with our project are discussed.

Four of the multistate projects focus on water quality: NC1186: Water Management and Quality for Ornamental Crop Production and Health; NE1545: Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems: Assessing the Impact of Climate Variability and Climate Change; S1063: Quantification of best management practice effectiveness for water quality protection at the watershed scale; and NC1190: Catalysts for water resources protection and restoration: applied social science research. Members of our multistate project have historically focused on water quantity issues, rather than water quality or wastewater management. One exception is a sub-objective related to water/soil salinity problems in the western U.S., which is not emphasized in other projects’ objectives. Water quality concerns can certainly create or exacerbate water quantity shortages, so specific water management issues that arise in the future may benefit from cross-project collaboration.

Three projects address technical aspects of microirrigation, irrigation scheduling, and associated climatic data needs: W3128: Scaling microirrigation technologies to address the global water challenge; WERA1022: Meteorological and climate data to support ET-based irrigation scheduling, water conservation, and water resources management; and WERA103: Climate data and analyses for applications in agriculture and natural resources. Microirrigation and irrigation scheduling are two tools, among many, that may reduce consumptive water use. Improvements in the availability and quality of climate data for irrigation scheduling may be helpful in refining the irrigation management and policy assessment models we propose in our methods. The relatively narrow scope of these regional projects implies that they complement, but do not duplicate, the work outlined in this proposal.

The remaining multistate project of relevance is one that is in the process of being formed: WERA_TEMP1023, Watershed Processes and Human Water Systems. WERA1023 is designed to bring together educators, researchers, and extension specialists to investigate watershed biophysical processes and human water systems. This new project’s membership overlaps with that of the former WERA1020: Western region multistate coordinating committee on water resources. WERA1020 is the group with whom W3190 co-sponsored a symposium on western water management in 2015 in Salt Lake City. W3190’s predominant expertise is in economics, which will complement WERA1023’s predominant expertise in watershed science and agricultural engineering. Our project members are eager to explore potential collaborations with WERA1023, for example the possibility of a follow-on to the highly successful Salt Lake City symposium with WERA1020. We will explore possibilities through informal conversations between individual project members once WERA1023 has been formed.


  1. Characterize water resource and human system response to climatic and anthropogenic perturbations.
    Comments: Our water resource and human systems are impacted by changes in climate and/or other anthropogenic disturbances. There is the need to characterize system responses with respect to the extent and impacts of both current changes and anticipated future conditions and their implications for future management—hence this objective. Results will provide critical insights and data that will help guide future planning and decision-making as well as the development of management interventions.
  2. Quantify water demand and value of water in competing and complementary water uses.
    Comments: Comments: Water managers and users make decisions regarding water use based on its value (whether social, environmental, or economic) to them and an implicit understanding of how their demand for water will change in response to social, environmental, and economic factors. Accurate estimates of value and demand are crucial to the implementation of effective water-saving policies and programs. Research undertaken in this objective will assist policymakers in understanding how to structure incentives and conservation programs to encourage technology adoption and water use efficiency.
  3. Evaluate and compare coordinated/integrated management of water sources and land use practices.
    Comments: Comments: Intensive agriculture and input use are on the rise, placing pressure on water availability and quality in many locations. Research undertaken in this objective examines the effects of land use change on water quantity and quality. It also explores the feasibility of alternative water sources. Results will provide critical insights and data that will help guide future planning and decision-making as well as the development of management interventions.
  4. Evaluate and compare alternative water quantity and quality management strategies and institutions.
    Comments: Comments: Institutions and management strategies to address the allocation of groundwater and surface water and/or deal with water quality measures vary considerably. Efficient and effective policies to reach the goals of water agencies are critical and can be comprised of institutions such as taxes, subsidies, markets, collective action initiatives, and technological innovations. Research undertaken in this objective will assist policymakers in evaluating policies that improve water allocation and water quality institutions and meet policymakers' goals.


Objective 1: Characterize water resource and human system response to climatic and anthropogenic perturbations. The following topic areas are proposed for further research:

1a. Projections for short and long term climatic patterns and trends

Researchers in Indiana will determine prevailing patterns, trends, and future outlook for climate considering local and regional extents. Analysis will be based on statistical methods such as those in Walsh and Lawler (1981), Mehan (2018), and Gitau (2018) and will focus primarily on daily and seasonal patterns and shifts both in general and with respect to extremes. Daily data are used in water resources, environmental, and agricultural modeling applications while a seasonal focus provides information on excesses and deficits that present challenges for water management. The periods for analysis of historical data will be determined based on data availability and consistency, while those for future projections will be determined using change-point detection algorithms such as those used in Mehan (2018) to determine critical periods for which analyses are warranted.

Researchers at the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, in partnership with Colorado State University, will estimate the impact of climate change on the supply and demand of water throughout the continental U.S. based on 7 climate GCMs and 2 RCPs. Estimates of water yield will be done at 12 x 12 km spatial resolution, and estimates of water demand will be done at county and HUC4 spatial resolutions. The assessment will show areas where water supply is vulnerable to climate change and trends in population growth, and what adaptation options may reduce that vulnerability.

1b. Impact of hydro-climatic extremes on water resource and human systems

Researchers in Colorado and Montana in collaboration with the Colorado Water Conservation Board will estimate the impacts of current drought in Colorado on local economies across a wide-range sectors and impact categories throughout Colorado.

Lake Okeechobee (the major water storage and drainage lake in Florida) and the Caloosahatchee River (the major discharge to the west and the Gulf of Mexico) provide drainage for agricultural runoff laden with nutrients, which are hypothesized to feed toxic algal blooms (‘red tide’) along the Florida gulf coast. The blooms also are driven by temperature, making extreme climate and climate change relevant topics.  Researchers in Florida will use nonlinear time series analysis and related new empirical causal detection techniques to identify and measure hydroclimatic drivers of red tide.

Researchers in Georgia will examine the impacts of hydro-climatic extremes on irrigation withdrawals under four carbon emission scenarios developed by the IPCC. They will use the suite of crop simulation models in DSSAT (Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer) to estimate the water use and agricultural production effects of projected climatic extremes for major crops across the United States through the year 2100. They will also investigate how key economic parameters (energy costs, output prices, etc.) affect optimal irrigation withdrawals, crop choice, and farm income under each emission scenario.

Researchers in Indiana will use a modeling approach to evaluate hydrologic and water quality responses to future climate, and provide information that will help guide water management efforts. The study will incorporate data from several different climate models—obtained from standard sources such as the MACA and considered separately so as not to mask extreme or rare events (Knutti et al. 2010; Mehan 2018)—and two radiative forcings based on concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere. The climate projections will be subjected to additional bias correction if needed to ensure that extreme events are adequately captured. Methods to reduce uncertainties in model outputs will be explored.

Researchers in Kansas will estimate how farmers change irrigation pumping in response to weather shocks and use those estimates to project changes in water use in the future due to climate change.

Researchers at the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station are working to assess risks to watersheds throughout the United States, including risks associated with development, agriculture, wildfire, and oil, gas, and mineral extraction. Risks are expected to vary wildly by geography, so scientists are working on machine learning tools and methods to measure these risks, assess their relative important by region, and provide best management practice guidelines to reduce these risks.

1c. Implications of uncertainty for projected responses

Researchers in California will focus on the role of adaptation to climate extremes in the wastewater treatment system. The study will be based on the premise that wastewater will become an important source for various water uses, including irrigation, as surface water scarcity increases in the future. However, future climate change also affects the effectiveness of wastewater treatment and the resilience of the wastewater treatment system.  Using data on wastewater treatment cost the study will estimate a treatment cost function and will demonstrate the effect of not accounting for, or accounting incompletely for climate change considerations (quality of the sewage, appropriate conveyance system, etc.) on the increasing cost of wastewater treatment.

Using IPCC climate projections, researchers in Georgia will evaluate uncertainty by developing cumulative distribution functions for optimal irrigation withdrawals for major crops across the United States.

Objective 2. Quantify water demand and value of water in competing and complementary water uses. The following topic areas are proposed for further research:

2a. Estimating the value of water in agricultural production and other uses

Researchers in Kansas will utilize historical land sales and cash rent data to better understand the value of water for irrigation and what factors impact the value of water. Researchers will also develop novel techniques to estimate the spillover of irrigated production on the livestock and agribusiness sectors. These insights will be used to project the economic impacts of aquifer depletion scenarios.

Researchers in Kentucky will assess how water quantity and water quality affect the composition of crops in parts of California's Central Valley and relate these to a variety of outcomes including revenue and profitability.  Results will be used to make inferences about the value of water to agricultural users.

Researchers in Kentucky will estimate a residential demand curve to back out the welfare losses consumers experience due to on-going mandatory water restrictions imposed on urban water users in California. These results can be compared against the value of agricultural water use to assess trade-offs and feasibility of transfers between sectors.  Such measures for the cost of water restrictions on consumers can also be used as in input into assessing the benefits of water infrastructure projects that enhance water storage and, therefore, water supply reliability. They will also estimate the effect of consumption information from a mobile application on residential water demand.  This study will shed light on how the value of water is changing for residential users since mobile applications will let users better understand which activities account for household water consumption (i.e. permits more efficient household water use).

Researchers in Nebraska will evaluate the relationship between energy use efficiency, groundwater extraction, and other factors to improve the joint management of energy and water resources. Existing evidence (Mieno and Brozović 2016) shows a wide range of values for energy use per unit of groundwater extraction, even when conditioning on the depth to groundwater. While existing research confirms that this will bias estimates of water demand, there is a need to better understand the source of the variation in energy and water-use efficiency. New research will use field-level data on energy and water use to better understand the factors that determine these relationships.

Researchers in Nebraska and collaborators will evaluate the relationship between land-use policies and irrigation behavior. The work will include land-use policies that are explicitly designed to reduce or manage groundwater use (e.g., Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, groundwater well moratoria, irrigation buyouts) and policies that are not directly connected to irrigation decisions (e.g., Conservation Reserve Program, federal crop insurance).

2b. Creating incentives for technology adoption and water use efficiency in agriculture

In collaboration with the USDA Economic Research Service, researchers in Colorado will explore how the availability of crop insurance impacts groundwater use and producer responsiveness to groundwater policies.  This research will utilize detailed, field-level insurance data from 2007-2013, combined with novel, remote-sensed parcel level, land and water use data to examine the relationship between irrigation capacity, water use, crop choice, and insurance decisions. The empirical results will provide input into the drafting of local and federal policies that account for how the incentives from different governance levels (e.g., federal crop insurance policies with local groundwater management policies) interact in influencing producer behavior and outcomes. The analysis will also help develop a better understanding of how agricultural producers respond to variability in weather conditions.

Researchers in Colorado will also conduct a randomized controlled trial to determine how financial contract structures influence participation in a program that compensates agricultural producers for providing monthly water use information. As an example, a random set of producers will be offered a payment that is made conditional to providing a reading of their groundwater meter for a given month, while other producers will be paid unconditionally. By comparing participation rates across contract treatments, we will be able to better understand the behavioral motivations for participating in such programs. In addition to providing feedback related to groundwater reporting behavior, the project will collect monthly groundwater use data that will be helpful in evaluating differences in intra-seasonal water demand related to crop production and how this may impact agricultural yields.

Researchers in Colorado will also implement a social comparison experiment that provides annual water use information for specific producers compared to other producers in their area to evaluate the potential conservation impacts of such a comparison. In the experiment, groundwater users will be randomly selected to receive the water use comparison information. The randomization will allow us to identify the causal impacts of the provision of the social comparison information on water use. The hypothesis is that a producer observing that other, similar groundwater users use less water will provide motivation for that producer to cut back on their own water use.  This positive conservation impact has been found with the provision of similar social comparisons for residential electricity and water use but has not been tested in a for-profit agricultural setting.

Researchers in Minnesota assess the effects of certification and peer benchmarking on farmer willingness to adopt conservation practices using randomized control trials followed by a survey. Participants in both treatments will receive information regarding their own conservation performance, conservation performance of others in the area, and advice on how to improve their conservation score. Participants in one of the treatments will further be asked to commit to using a conservation practice in the next 12 months. A post-intervention survey will further elicit preferences on program design from participants through a choice experiment. In traditional stated choice experiments, subjects respond to each choice set with the option they most prefer. This research will explore more recently developed formats including best/worst scaling.

Researchers in Missouri will conduct an analysis of agricultural water use and technology adoption using principles of behavioral economics, for example changing behavior through “nudges” (positive reinforcement or indirect suggestions) rather than economic incentives. This may have lower transaction costs than traditional Extension efforts or government mandates. This research has the potential to increase the use of water-saving technologies and practices. If not coupled with appropriate incentives though, this may increase water use due to the rebound effect.

Objective 3. Evaluate and compare coordinated/integrated management of water sources and land use practices. The following topic areas are proposed for further research:

3a. Best management practices to improve water quality and water quantity

Researchers in Indiana will use a modeling approach, utilizing state-of-the-art models such as SWAT, to determine the effectiveness of current and past management practices in reducing watershed sediment and nutrient losses and to examine the impacts of a changing climate and extreme weather events on water quality and quantity as associated with the management practices. Basin responses to long-term climatic trends and projected future climate will be examined in relation to existing and alternative management practices. Mechanisms that are critical to watershed hydrologic and pollutant transport processes will be explored. Results will provide information that will help guide water-related decision making and management. The methodologies and applications developed will offer flexibility so that they can be adapted easily to other regions beyond the study area.

3b. Impacts of land use change on stream flow and water quality

Researchers in Colorado will be developing hydro-economic modeling framing that couples SWAT with optimization to evaluate how tile drain systems impact the temporal distribution of water quality impacts and implications for land conservation practices.

Researchers in Michigan will evaluate the effectiveness of surface flow and subsurface flow wetlands at removing phosphorus from agricultural subsurface drainage. They will also evaluate a saturated buffer effectiveness at treating nutrients leaving subsurface tile drains. This work will allow for comparison of the costs of removing phosphorus in the long run between the wetland and traditional annually subsidized conservation practices.

Researchers in Michigan will use new low-cost water stage sensors to deploy a high density network of sensors to better inform hydrologic modeling of watersheds and predict how changes on the landscape are impacting stream flows.

Researchers in Minnesota will develop and implement an integrated bio-economic spatial model to analyze how policy drivers influence adoption of cover and perennial crops as alternatives to traditional row crops, and how those land use changes would change nitrogen pollution, phosphorus pollution, and sedimentation.

Researchers in Louisiana will study alternative salinity management practices and their impact on reducing salinity related damage to the economy. Adaptive measures modeled include salt-tolerant crop varieties, dryland cultivation, conservation program participation, and fallow. Overall economic-wide losses will be estimated using input-output analysis with IMPLAN software.

3c. Surface and groundwater interaction (substitutability and conjunctive management)

Researchers in Arkansas will continue on the use of conjunctive water management to mitigate groundwater overdraft. One underdeveloped topic is the use of managed aquifer recharge to augment groundwater resource when surface water storage is unavailable. A danger however with all forms of conjunctive water management is that irrigated land and more intensively irrigated land will expand. This research will examine how coupling conjunctive water management with regulations and market based policies might achieve conservation more efficiently than only one approach. Researchers will use a choice experiment to identify the social component of value (e.g., value of groundwater for future generations, ecosystem service benefits) for groundwater conservation.

Researchers in California, USGS, the University of Zaragoza, Spain, and UNAM in Mexico will develop a theoretical framework to identify an optimal level of subsidence when there is a tradeoff between benefits of use of aquifer water and short- and long-term damage from land subsidence. Empirical research will follow in California, Spain and Mexico to apply the model to institutional and physical conditions in various locations in these countries.

Researchers in Colorado, Nebraska, and other collaborating institutions will analyze groundwater management policies for regions where groundwater and surface water are hydrologically connected. In particular, W4190 members Goemans (CSU), Schoengold (UNL), Suter (CSU), and collaborators will develop an integrated model that incorporates economic decision making, groundwater extraction, groundwater impacts (using MODFLOW) and surface water impacts (using SWAT) to evaluate a range of groundwater management policies at study sites throughout the High Plains Aquifer.

3d. Wastewater reuse and aquifer recharge

Researchers in California will develop an empirical model to evaluate the economics of managed aquifer recharge in the central valley of California in light of recurring severe droughts. This work will feed into long-term preparation to deal with climate change in the state of California.

Researchers in California will work on applying a theoretical model (developed under W3190) to the region of Escondido, California.  The findings of the empirical model will support a possible contract between avocado growers and the city of Escondido in securing a steady supply of wastewater for irrigation of avocados around the city.

Researchers in Louisiana will conduct a survey to determine crop producers’ willingness to build ponds to capture stormwater runoff and recover tailwater for irrigation purposes. The survey will include questions to identify grower’s willingness to adopt the technology required to capture and harvest storm water runoff and the size of storage ponds they would build. A cost-benefit analysis of pond construction and a non-market valuation survey of use and nonuse values will also be performed.

Researchers in Michigan will model groundwater recharge/infiltration in heavily irrigated watersheds and prioritize payments to farmers for conservation practices in the watershed that increase groundwater recharge. The increased recharged will be quantified with the goal of increasing baseflow to streams to improve fish habitat.

Objective 4. Evaluate and compare alternative water quantity and quality management strategies and institutions. The following topic areas are proposed for further research:

4a. Allocation mechanisms

Researchers in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada will develop and utilize advanced hydro-economic models along with newly generated climatic inputs to help develop a better understanding of: (1) How changes in mountain snowpack affect available water; (2) Which basins in the arid West are most at risk; (3) The effectiveness of existing water allocation laws and regulation in managing these changes, in comparison with proposed modifications, and; (4) How changes in available water, and laws and regulations, affect the economic well-being of various groups in society - including the sustainability of agricultural production in the arid West.

Researchers in Kansas will assess the impacts of regulatory limits (i.e., allocations) on irrigator water use. They will also utilize surveys to determine the willingness of irrigators to support alternative types of management plans. One important area of exploration will be to determine the role of prior appropriation property rights in achieving efficient reductions in water use. Researchers at University of Nebraska and Kansas State University will also work to determine if the allocations have impacts on irrigation behavior outside the area with allocations due to lateral flows of the aquifer.

Researchers in Wyoming are developing a regional hydro-economic model to examine the farm-level and community-level economic impacts of developing alternative groundwater management strategies in southeastern Wyoming (overlying the Ogallala Aquifer). Collaborators include local irrigators, conservation district staff, and SEO representatives in the region. Results will inform local discussions on future management of the groundwater resource.

4b. Collaborative management/collective action

Researchers in Colorado will conduct research to help state/local PWES institution programming better characterize for its stakeholders, potential investors and citizens the expected benefits of investments in PWES, and carry out analysis to assess specific benefits of an alternative institution/strategy for enhancing water quantity and quality in a watershed. Outreach will focus on working collaboratively with these alternative watershed management institutions to address the priority research and information needs of the institutions and their partners/funders.

Researchers in Rhode Island will develop models and psychological evidence of how mental stress affects collective action for groundwater resources.  We hope to gain grant funding to explore how irrigation farmers over the Ogallala choose pro-social actions over the groundwater commons and how mental stress affects the ability for groundwater management to form.  The results of this research can be used to inform and design agricultural policy to establish better groundwater management initiatives and additional programs to help collective action problems.

4c. Water transfers

Researchers in California and Minnesota will analyze water transfer proposals to increase inflows to the Salton Sea in California, including an agricultural water leasing scheme developed from a hydro-economic programming model and an ocean water pipeline.

Researchers in North Carolina will develop innovative approaches to convey economic insight to water decision makers that enhance human system response to a changing climate. Research will enhance understanding of how price signals provided by water right transfers, water utilities, and pollution abatement markets affect user decisions. Extension and outreach will focus on creating tools that convey the opportunity cost of current practices and demonstrate opportunities to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of water use to address scarcity and other climatic challenges.

Demand for water in the Colorado River Basin is forecasted to exceed water supply. Wyoming, along with other Upper Basin States, will likely be required to curtail water use, to meet its obligations under the Colorado River Compact. WY researchers in collaboration with state water managers and NGOs will explore the economic (agricultural production versus water use by other sectors) and ecological (water-based ecosystem service provision) tradeoffs associated with water transfers; and evaluate how best to structure a water market to meet Compact obligations; and educate water users in the Basin about these tradeoffs.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • W4190 members will explore the feasibility of collectively pursuing grant opportunities, to facilitate research and outreach on water resource management and policy.
  • Methods and tools to convey the opportunity cost of current practices, demonstrate opportunities to increase efficiency, measure risks and assess their relative importance, demonstrate effects of no or incomplete accounting for climate change, measure the effectiveness of alternative water institutions, and for other water management and climate related assessments.
  • Projections on future water use, water quality, costs, agricultural production, and effects of climatic extremes in a changing climate.
  • Insights on how farmers adjust use of water and other inputs and cropping decisions in response to economic drivers, variability in weather conditions, neighbors’ conservation behavior, and government program design.
  • Insights on how non-agricultural water users adjust water use in response to changes in water price and neighbor’s conservation behavior.
  • Insights on how to structure agricultural water conservation programs to increase participation.
  • Measures of the effects of different institutions that enhance human system response to changing climate.
  • Understanding of how hydrologic relationships and institutions impact both water quantity and water quality.
  • Account for spatial heterogeneities in water demand and hydrology that drive inefficiencies in water policy and collective action initiatives.
  • Knowledge about how institutions like water allocations and prior appropriations contribute to water conservation efforts.
  • Guidelines for best management practices to reduce risk and information on adaptation options to reduce vulnerabilities.
  • Technical publications in peer-reviewed journals, presentations at professional meetings, and other materials such as research briefs and fact sheets.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Improved estimates of water’s value in different uses and a better understanding of agricultural demand for water (how water use changes in response to climatic, economic, and social factors) will facilitate implementation of effective water-saving policies and programs and inform selection of alternative management institutions.
  • Methodologies, tools, and advances in modeling will be broadly applicable and useable by scientists, water managers, and policymakers in different areas across the world.
  • Results will provide policymakers with critical insights and data that can help them with local and regional decision-making as well as the development of management interventions.
  • Results will assist policymakers in understanding how to structure incentives and conservation programs to encourage technology adoption and water use efficiency.
  • Results will provide guidance for local and regional decision-makers in developing water markets and other water management institutions.


(2020):• Data collection, experimental design, implementation of experiments begins. • Meetings with local stakeholders and policymakers to gather background information, exchange ideas, discuss potential implications of our research results.

(2021):• Innovative approaches, methods, models, and tools developed. • Projections for short and long term climatic patterns and trends including current trends, and future outlooks, seasonal patterns and changes in extremes completed.

(2022):• Data collection, experimental design, implementation of experiments completed. • Meetings with local stakeholders and policymakers to exchange ideas, and discuss practical implications of our research results.

(2023):• Impacts of hydro-climatic extremes on water resource and human systems determined including: hydrologic and water quality responses; impacts of current droughts; and irrigation withdrawals. • Analysis of results from experimentation completed. • Evaluation and comparison of alternative water quantity and quality management strategies and institutions completed.

(2024):• Guidelines for management to reduce risk developed and made available to target audiences. • Meetings with local stakeholders and policymakers to discuss practical implications of our research results. • Dissemination of results and preparation and submission of final report.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

W3190 members have a strong record of reaching out to stakeholders and policymakers to gather input about research needs and discuss research findings and implications. Past outreach efforts have included a publicly available web-based decision tools, one-page research fact-sheets, public symposiums, popular press articles, and reports targeted to stakeholder groups. W3190 members have an extensive academic and research audience through numerous journal articles and professional presentations.

W4190 members will continue this rich tradition of actively engaging stakeholders, policymakers, academics and fellow researchers across disciplines. W4190 members will organize and host a variety of meetings with local stakeholders and policymakers to gather background information, exchange ideas, meet potential collaborators, and discuss practical implications of our research results. Meetings may have different aspects to meet the needs of the stakeholders, such as formal presentations, panel discussions, and surveys. Details regarding dates and locations of stakeholder engagement will be developed according to the project’s time frame and target audience. Many projects will involve training and mentoring graduate students, and in some cases undergraduate students, which constitutes outreach to future water resource scientists and managers.

W4190 members will continue to publish peer-reviewed articles in disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals. To highlight the group’s diverse portfolio of water-related research, we will pursue a special issue in a relevant outlet (e.g., Water Economics and Policy) during years 4 & 5 of the project. Members will also present research findings at relevant professional conferences. Opportunities also exist to organize a special session on “Challenges and Innovations in Water Management and Policy” at the Heartland Environmental and Resource Economics Workshop (an annual conference held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) or an annual meeting of the Western Agricultural Economics Association, Southern Agricultural Economics Association or multidisciplinary University Council on Water Resources or the Northeastern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association.


W4190 will be governed by an executive committee, which will consist of a Chair, Vice-Chair and Secretary. Each year, at the annual meeting, project participants will elect a new Secretary. The Secretary’s responsibilities will include: providing input about the proposed organization of the next annual meeting; corresponding with W4190 members about the meeting; soliciting state reports from members in the weeks leading up to the annual meeting; compiling state reports and providing an electronic copy to participants during the annual meeting; taking notes during the annual meeting; and providing input on the annual (or final) report after the annual meeting concludes. The Secretary will then be promoted to serve as Vice-Chair for one year. The Vice-Chair’s responsibilities will include helping the Chair organize and prepare for the annual meeting, and drafting the annual report for the executive committee to review. The Vice-Chair will then be promoted to serve as Chair for one year. The Chair is responsible for organizing the next annual meeting, and revising and submitting the annual (or final) report. At times, the executive committee may choose to organize ad-hoc sub committees for various purposes, such as proposal writing, special annual meeting events (e.g., field trips), etc.

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University of Northern Colorado, USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Lab, USDA/FS Rocky Mountain Research Station
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