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The West's precarious water supply will not return to previous levels.
This is the new normal, and we've got to figure out how to live here.
Solution will involve range of strategie in law, policy, science, technology.
October 4, 2016

First of 3-part series on how ASU scientists are putting expertise toward sustaining life in arid land

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.


This is the first of a three-part series examining the work that ASU is doing in the realm of water as a resource in the arid West. We’ll explore solutions, but first we look at the current situation and how we got here.

HOOVER DAM — Atop Hoover Dam on a 115-degree July afternoon, tourists line up to suck cold water from fountains and crowd into the air-conditioned cafe and visitors’ center.

Transpose both those actions to the 30 million people who depend upon that blue-green water behind the dam. That’s water for a jogger in Santa Monica. Water for an oleander hedge in Phoenix. Water for a shower to wash away a night in Vegas. It’s a comforting sight on a scorching day, all that water.

What’s disconcerting is the white bathtub ring about 200 feet above the surface.

Talk to the experts, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: That ring is never going away again. Between climate change and an ongoing drought, the ring is a stark reminder of another iteration of that hated 21st-century term: the “new normal.”

“I think people have come to the recognition that the infrastructure which has served us so well over the last 100 years is not going to do the same job in the next 100 years,” ASU research professor Pat Gober said.

That bathtub ring has been growing for years. There’s a number every water professional in the Colorado River Basin knows: 1,075.

When the water in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam drops below 1,075 feet, it will automatically trigger a round of mandatory water-use cuts to each state. Agriculture will take the first hit. Subsequent cuts tied to lake levels become more draconian. The ring is a visible symbol of how precariously Westerners live.

And we do live precariously. Anyone whose air-conditioning has broken during a Phoenix summer or whose car battery has died on the freeway can tell you, it gets unbearable in a hurry. The ancient Hohokam people took off from what is now south-central Arizona during an epic drought in the Medieval Ages.

But 30 million people aren’t going to just pick up and leave. If this is the “new normal,” we’re going to have to figure out a way to survive here.

There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take a range of strategies from experts in law, policy, science, and technology. Some of those strategies are already in place. Some won’t exist for another 10 or 20 years.

That’s what this story is about. It’s about how a wide range of scientists at Arizona State University are putting their broad and diverse expertise toward solving the problem of how people in the arid West will continue to live sustainably, in a place where people basically have no business living at all.

Tourists fill up a water bottle at Hoover Dam.
Hoover Dam draws tourists from around the world. Here, a family from Italy fills a water bottle in the 115-degree heat July 27, with Lake Mead's "bathtub ring" visible behind them. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


“We’re realizing that water as a resource is in many realms, and an institution of this breadth is what’s needed to address these problems and provide solutions and study the phenomenon from multiple angles,” said hydrologist Enrique VivoniVivoni is an associate professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability..

This story is about nuance. Conserve! (But keep your lawn and pool.) Worry about levels in Lake Mead! (But don’t worry about every fluctuation or weather event.) Water people know they’re sending mixed messages. They’re mixed on purpose. They have to be.

“Everything about water is complicated,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU. “I love that about water.”

Where to begin?

“It's such a big issue,” said Karen Smith. “It's so fundamental.”

Smith, a faculty associate in the School of Sustainability, teaches a course on water use. She’s a veteran water warrior: strategic planner for the Salt River Project, the quasi-governmental agency charged with administering the flows from the Salt and Verde Rivers, one of Phoenix’s main water sources; water-quality director at the state Department of Environmental Quality; deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources.

“One of the real problems I think we have when we start to talk about it is where to start,” she said. “Where do you start? Do you start with the science? Do you start with the policy, with sort of the politics to go with the economics of it? It's crazy. There's so much to it, and part of the challenge we've had in Arizona is knowing where to begin.”

What’s going on

“We’re all watching the lake levels in Mead,” said Pat Gober. “That’s the visual emblem of water infrastructure that’s worked for us in the past.”

Gober, a research professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban PlanningThe School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., has won international prizes for her water research. She studies water resources management, decision making under uncertainty and urban climate adaptation.

“We’re going to fall below (the 1,075 line) soon, and then we’re going to have to figure out a new plan for the future, because the amount of Colorado River water we assumed we were going to get, we’re not going to get,” she said. “It’s a brave new world for us, I think, and that’s the symbol of it.”

Water and climate people talk about a “new normal” because they don’t believe that those lake levels will return to what they were 50 years ago.

“That means we have to change the economy and the culture,” Gober said. “It’s going to be some kind of radical change.”

While changing the economics of water is a relatively simple proposition (more on that later), changing culture is another story.

Across the West, each city dependent on the Colorado River has its own unique challenges, but overarching all is the urgent need for survival in a dry place, whether that’s Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego or Phoenix.

The Arizona capital is a river city.

“We’ve taken the water out of the river and spread it across the landscape,” said ASU professor Nancy GrimmGrimm is a professor in the School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; director, Central Arizona–Phoenix Long-term Ecological Research Project, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; co-director, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; and affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., who studies desert streams and how water works in urban ecosystems.

“We call it riparianization of the city, because you’ve turned this what was a single riparian strip along the river into this big blob that’s all green, and when you fly into Phoenix you see that,” she said. “A lot of what we see in terms of the ecology of the city, the kinds of things that we’ve been studying in people’s yards, the vegetation that’s here, the kinds of birds that you see, the soil properties, all of these kinds of things are related to that fact. And if you think about it in historical terms, that water was spread across the landscape initially to create farmlands. Farmland has converted to housing.”

At the turn of the previous century, Arizona had a desolate national reputation because of the desert and violence. It was the wild West, after all. Early boosters of Phoenix created marketing materials around 1910 exhorting people to move to Arizona. Promotional pamphlets usually depicted orange groves and canals. Almost never was a cactus shown. (The same applies to ASU during the same time, where campus was touted as a lush oasis with a huge fountain in front of Old Main.)

“We made the urban environment attractive to people who were coming here,” Gober said. “We created an oasis culture, not a desert culture. This isn’t a desert city. It uses water from all across the West, dammed up in those big dams to make our city look like Chicago and Philadelphia and northern California. Maybe it was a good thing to do 100 years ago, but it’s not going to work for us.”

The ability of the region to grow is a function of the ability to capture and use large amounts of water. The future of arid cities is dependent on our use of water. Gober points out we use water to make the place make sense for us.

To a certain extent, that will have to change out of necessity.

“We’ve totally transformed this landscape, but the work that (ASU) has done looking at the future in terms of climate change, in terms of population is suggesting that we can’t keep doing that,” Grimm said.

Wild burros drink from Lake Mead.
A group of wild burros consume a little vegetation and water next to Lake Mead on July 28. The Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, is crucial to life of all kinds in the West. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


The only way to support the current population is by storing water in years of plenty to use in times of shortage. The way we’ve been doing that is by using a massive infrastructure of canals, dams and lakes. The heroic engineering marvels of the 20th century, like Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and the Central Arizona Project canal, gave Westerners stability and the ability to change the landscape.

But now the rains aren’t showing up. Far more people live in the West now than did in the 1930s, when Hoover was built. And the wild cards of drought and climate change hover over it all.

All of the allocations of Colorado River water that Arizona thought it was going to get have to be rethought. State water managers don’t use historical data sets to predict rainfall and snowpack because they’re not representative of what’s happening now. Arizona’s Department of Water Resources uses rainfall records going back to 1988 — what the agency director calls a stress test period — plus models that incorporate climate change.

The problem

If you check the Bureau of Reclamation’s website, Lake Mead is often slightly below 1,075 feet. Why isn’t everyone freaking out over this?

The lake fluctuates a lot because of rain, evaporation and a host of other factors, according to Porter, of the Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Mead’s diminishing levels aren’t due to drought: It’s over-allocation, which doesn’t account for loss. About 1.2 million acre-feet are lost every year because of evaporation, seepage into porous surfaces, and so on.

“The lake level will be going down every year no matter what because of this structural deficit, as it’s called,” Porter said. 

An acre-foot is the measurement water wonks use. They don’t talk about gallons. An acre-foot is one acre covered by water a foot deep. (It’s about 326,000 gallons, if you must know.) Most water managers call an acre-foot enough water for a suburban family for a year.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the lake’s surface drops 12 feet per year. When Hoover was built, no one thought about this.

“At the time there was so much water, and we didn’t have nearly the demands we have now,” Porter said .

A 2011 study of the Colorado River Basin by the Bureau of Reclamation (motto: “Managing Water in the West”) predicted a 3 million acre-foot gap in 2040.

“Too many straws in it,” said John Sabo. Sabo, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, has loved to fish since he was a boy. He earned a degree in stream ecology, studied hydrology, and eventually ended up studying water, because everything in Arizona revolves around water.

The Bureau of Reclamation makes its determination for the coming year on Oct. 1, the beginning of the water year. (Like finance, the calendar and taxes, there is a water year.) 

An August report by the bureau headed off a shortage declaration by predicting lake levels will be 4 feet above the trigger point at the end of the year. (They also predicted a shortage to be declared in 2018.)

“Levels are not declining as quickly,” Porter said. Conservation “efforts are paying off.”

A tourist boat travels around Lake Mead.
The Desert Princess paddleboat offers tours of Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam on July 27, with the "bathtub ring" a visible reminder of the volume of water missing from the Colorado River-fed reservoir. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


This wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone in water management. The Colorado River is not a natural system, Smith, from the School of Sustainability, pointed out. No one wants the shortage declaration and the mandatory cuts that will accompany it, so an enormous amount of shuffling happens to prevent that.

“It's a highly plumbed river,” Smith said. “And so they manage it. So they'll look at Mead, and they'll look at Powell and they'll say, ‘You know, let's take a little bit more from Powell now and bring it down to Mead because it looks like they'll be some better inflows into Powell. … So we'll see what the bureau does when it gets close to 1,075.”

It’s an enormous system to manage. There are two countries, upper- and lower-basin states, treaties, regulatory backgrounds, judicial backgrounds and legal precedents. The whole mess is collectively called the Law of the River.

It’s a delicately balanced system. At a recent water meeting at the state Capitol, one panelist described it as a Rubik’s Cube, with each square representing a different stakeholder. Turn the cube once, and the whole system goes out of whack.

Water managers aren’t expecting a rosy future.

“Climate change is already a huge challenge for us,” said Kathryn Sorensen, water services director for the city of Phoenix. “We can expect that the flows of our local rivers, the Salt and Verde, will diminish and become more variable or potentially turbid. We can expect that we will enter into shortage on the Colorado River and probably stay in shortage for quite some time.”

Climate change, drought, or both?

This is Arizona’s 16th year in a drought. Is this year 16 of a 16-year drought, or year 16 of a 30-year drought? NASA’s most recent research suggests the latter might be the case, with an 80 percent chance to see a 30-year drought by the middle to end of this century.

Droughts are part of natural variability in a desert region, but there is research that suggests they are becoming worse and more frequent because of climate change. Weather patterns in the Pacific that affect the West are changing, but researchers don’t know why.

“(Climate change and drought) are working together, unfortunately,” said state climatologist Nancy Selover, a research professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I wish I could say 43 percent is this and 43 percent is that, but I can’t do that. It’s a fairly complex system.”


The water series

Part 1: The current situation and how we got here.

Part 2: Science and research.

Part 3: Law, policy, challenges — and some good news.


Top photo: The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on U.S. 93, a bypass from the old route over Hoover Dam, provides a scenic view of the dam and Lake Mead. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Continuing life in the arid West will take a variety of strategies.
October 5, 2016

From desalination to homes with dual pipe systems, scientists and policy analysts exploring wide-ranging strategies

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the work that ASU is doing in the realm of water as a resource in the arid West. Today, we explore technology and innovative approaches.

To reach the floating docks at Temple Bar Marina on Lake Mead, you have to cross a 200-yard-long gangway stretching across cracked mud flats that used to be the lake bottom.

Mike Reisbig moored his boat there on an August afternoon. The Huntington Beach man, a football coach at Long Beach City College in California, has been coming to Temple Bar for about 50 years.

“I’ve noticed a lot of changes,” he said. “I’ve been here when the water’s all the way up, going to the spill wells, to where it is today. It’s a scary sight. You don’t know whether you’re going to be able to get your boat on the water anymore or not. It’s such a beautiful place. It’s the only place I’ll bring this boat. ... It’s getting scarier each year, trying to figure out how to get it in the water. We seem to figure out a way and get it in. This is the best lake I’ve ever been to, and I’m going to keep going.”

His parents discovered the lake decades ago.

“It just has become one of those things the family does,” Reisbig said. “Believe it or not, I brought a 3-month-old baby up here with this heat in this boat, so she could experience this lake. I know she doesn’t remember any of it, but she comes up here every year. It’s just what the family does. I have yet to find a better place to bring a boat. It’s perfect out here. You’ve got your rough days, and you’ve got your beautiful days. It’s just perfect. It doesn’t get better.”

Boaters at Lake Mead
Mike Reisbig of Huntington Beach, California, hands ropes to his wife, Lori, as they prepare to back out of their slip and begin their daylong excursion on Lake Mead on July 28. His family has been visiting Temple Bar Marina for about 50 years, and he has seen the reservoir's water levels go through many changes. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Like Reisbig, hydrologists, policy analysts and researchers are figuring out ways to keep going in the arid West. Here you’ll hear about technology and innovation behind water.

Straws in the ocean

It’s possible that the West will someday get to the point where new water supplies need to be found. One possibility being discussed in Arizona is building a plant to remove salt from seawater in Mexico on the Gulf of California.

The idea is in the early stages, but the broad outline of how it would work goes like this: Arizona builds it, Mexico uses it, and we take their Colorado River allotment.

Building — and permitting — a plant in California would be so expensive it’s not on the table.

“A lot of people are very pessimistic about desalination and its future,” Rhett Larson said. “I’m one of the optimists. I actually think that it’s going to be a big part of water-supply solutions, and probably sooner than people realize.

“The technology’s come a lot further. A lot of people think about desalination as just, ‘Well, it’s insanely expensive and nobody will ever do it,’ but the technology has come a long way and I think it has a really bright future.”

Larson is a fifth-generation Arizonan.

“I grew up worrying about water,” he said. “I’m one of the weirdos who actually went to law school wanting to be a water lawyer.”

Larson, an associate professor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, is a senior research fellow with the Morrison Institute of Public Policy and sits on the advisory board of the Morrison Institute’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

A privately owned desalination plant opened in Carlsbad, California, last December. Under a 30-year operating agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority, the plant produces 56,000 acre-feet per year. Most water managers call an acre-foot — one acre covered by water a foot deep — enough water for a suburban family for a year.

“That water’s cheaper for San Diego (residents) than pumping the water from the Colorado River,” said Larson, pointing out that the river water would require the construction of a pipeline across the state.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU, is not a believer.

“I think a lot of the talk about desal (desalination) is wishful thinking,” she said. “People want an easy fix.”

Sarah Porter
Sarah Porter (pictured addressing the Southwestern Regional Water-Energy Nexus meeting on Sept. 8 in Tempe), the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU, thinks desalination is wishful thinking. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Desal water from the Carlsbad plant is selling at more than $2,000 per acre-foot. SRP water is about $16 per acre-foot. Putting $2,000 acre-foot water on crops doesn’t make any sense.

“I think if we build a desal plant in Mexico, and that water were used in Mexico as a substitute for Colorado River water, I’m not sure how Mexico’s allotment of river water results in residential water,” Porter said. “The percentage that’s agricultural water is extremely cheap water, and it’s hard to figure out how you could use ocean desal for crops in a way that made sense.”

Desal plants also need constant demand. We usually build infrastructure and then demand catches up with it.

“I don’t think we should build something before we have the demand for it,” Porter said. “It’s a huge investment. ... If we do get desal, (who pays for it) will definitely be municipal users, not growers.”

The ick factor

Reusing water is a huge part of the solution to close the demand gap.

“You don’t need a new supply if you’re reusing,” pointed out John Sabo, a School of Life Sciences professor who studies riverine ecology and freshwater sustainability. Reclaimed water is also cheaper than desalinated seawater. “We do need to work at becoming more efficient, because in the future that’s going to be our primary source for growth.”

ASU’s Central Arizona–Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) program studies urban ecology. It has been ongoing for the past 20 years. Biological, physical, engineering and social scientists are studying eight aspects of what happens when you plop a city in a desert. Nancy GrimmGrimm is a professor in the School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; director, Central Arizona–Phoenix Long-term Ecological Research Project, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; co-director, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; and affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. directs the project and has worked on it since the beginning.

One part of the study was looking at the reuse of treated wastewater for drinking water across the United States.

“The findings would be surprising to you, because there’s a lot more reuse of water in that particular interaction — between treated wastewater and reuse as drinking water or as municipal water — than you would think,” Grimm said.

“In some places it becomes really important during droughts. So in Texas, for instance, some of the cities are definitely using a pretty high proportion of the treated wastewater as municipal water supply. So there’s sort of what they call the “yuck” factor, the “ick” factor associated with that, but there’s really quite a lot of research that suggests that the water is quite safe.”

One of Sabo’s ideas is homes with two sets of pipes: one for potable water and one for reused water, which would go into the toilet, onto landscaping, etc. It would be an expensive retrofit, but one that could be gradually phased in. (When electricity came along, not everyone had their homes wired at once, for example.)

Golf courses and fake lakes already use reclaimed water.

“Why can’t everybody have some access for their outdoor watering to treated wastewater?” Grimm asked. “Those kinds of ideas are things that we’re exploring in CAP LTER, with people from the community, so government officials, people from flood-control districts in Maricopa County, various community leaders and so forth, we’ve been having these workshops that are creating what we’re calling sustainable future scenarios for Phoenix.”

A former dock anchor sits on now-dry land
A large concrete block that once anchored a dock sits on dry land. The shoreline is now several hundred yards away. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Phoenix has been using reclaimed water on a huge scale since the 1960s. It cools Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, irrigates farmland and recharges aquifers. The city will use even more in the future, water services director Sorensen said.

“We’ve been pioneers in that, literally decades ahead of other communities,” she said. “Its importance will increase in the future. ... That means the value of reclaimed water will increase. It means the importance of really managing our wonderful aquifer here increases exponentially.”

Future H2O

One of ASU’s three main water initiatives is Future H2O, unveiled by Sabo at a White House Water Summit in March. It’s a five-year plan focused on identifying opportunities for domestic and global water security. ASU researchers will partner with private and public sectors to find solutions to difficult water problems. The whole idea is to focus on the situation at hand, rather than hoping it will change.

“Where are the opportunities of the future to do better?” Sabo described it.

It has five pillars, one of which is aimed at averting what water managers call “the Silver Tsunami,” the imminent retirement of a lot of water professionals with institutional memory and expertise.

“The opportunity is the next generation is going to be more capable of harnessing the technology that surrounds us because they’re embedded in that technology,” Sabo said. “They know how to use it. The next generation is going to build on what the incumbents have left us, which in Arizona is quite strong.”

Two other areas of focus are:

• Developing funding for an urban landscape design and renovation campaign that reduces residential outdoor water use in at least one Phoenix metro service area by a third by 2025.

• Delivering research and advice to at least 10 of the largest corporate water users in the U.S. to scope, plan and implement restoration projects at scales that improve water reliability in stressed water basins nationwide.

Sabo created a software tool that helps corporations apply analytics to how they use water, simultaneously helping water conservation, habitat restoration and their bottom lines. It’s being used by Dow Chemical at their west Texas operations on the Brazos River.

“It tells Dow how to meet their water bottom line for manufacturing by creating wetlands instead of creating gray infrastructure,” said Sabo.

The nature of desert cities

One of things Grimm’s long-term desert cities project looks at is how storm water moves through the city and how it’s handled.

She’s interested in the idea that cities are potentially really good experimental test beds for thinking of water as a unified system. She envisions a city water department that manages drinking water, wastewater and storm water holistically.

“Some of that is going on in Phoenix, because Phoenix has been pretty innovative about things like reusing treated wastewater for watering golf courses and filling up fake lakes and things like that,” she said.

What happens when you plop a city in the middle of a desert? How does that affect the way water moves and behaves?

“We know very little about that,” said hydrologist Enrique VivoniVivoni is an associate professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; affiliated faculty, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. 

Vivoni is interested in how changes in climate and land cover affect water as a resource. He uses observations of sensors and satellite data and computer modeling of hydrological systems.

“The movement of hydrologists studying cities in depth is actually very new,” he said.

Most other schools specialize in natural systems hydrology, like rivers, mountain watersheds and wetlands.

“None of them have this special expertise on human-environment relations in cities, where water is important currency,” Vivoni said. “Humans are primarily going to be urban dwellers moving forward. As a species, more than half of us live in cities. We do all these changes around us, and we have almost no clue about how the system works internally.

“Part of my work at ASU is on that angle: understanding, measuring, quantifying and eventually predicting how water moves, is transformed and flows through desert cities. My work focuses on arid and semi-arid areas.”

A large boat sits at a marina at Lake Mead
The Temple Bar rock formation glows at sunset on Lake Mead, near the Temple Bar Marina, on July 27. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


What does climate change and covering land with a city do, in concert or separately, to alter hydrological systems? When it comes to hydrology, codes and regulations don’t have much to offer: Don’t create more runoff than would have been produced without the development, make sure that water has a place to go, and that’s about it.

“We don’t tell our developers, ‘Make sure your development does not increase urban heat,’ ” Vivoni said. “That’s not in our regulations. What I’m trying to get at is we’ve built cities with very little hydrologic and atmospheric science in mind. ‘Just do it. The consequences we’ll figure out later.’ ”

What Vivoni’s group does is provide datasets, models and model outputs that can inform policy from science.

“I think we have to be a little more proactive about our water resources,” he said. “That’s going to require more science in our agency.”

Vivoni feels there needs to be more emphasis put on soft infrastructure: plans, policies, procedures, modeling systems, operational plans that say if the drought is this severe, we’re going to do this; if it’s that severe, we’re going to do that.

“How can we prepare the planners, the cities, the decision-makers with information and knowledge beforehand so that there are plans in place that can be followed under the eventual drought that will eventually hit us someday? That’s squarely in the academic world, and ASU is well-prepared with its social science and natural science expertise to contribute to that.”

Bridging the gap between science and policy is called “sociohydrology.” It’s a recognition that the natural science community hasn’t taken humans into account well enough in their work.

Government used to speak only to consultants.

“We’re at a phase now where academia is starting to play a role,” Vivoni said. The university provides consulting that’s broader than just an engineering goal that needs to be met.

“It can’t only be from one angle,” he said. “It can’t only be from the engineering angle, and it can’t only be from the anthropological angle. It has to be from some combination of lenses. ... We’re trying to improve models that can be used in context with stakeholders, to have them have access to tools that can enhance decision-making. I’m at the technical back end of that. I’m not the person with the skills to interface directly with the Phoenix water manager.”

How ASU ended up bridging the gap between science and government

Water in the West in general has historically been a by-product of agriculture. Grady Gammage Jr. explained how ASU arrived where it is now.

Gammage (son of ASU’s third president) wears a lot of hats. If there’s a public or private board making important decisions about the state, you can count on seeing him there. He is an academic, a lawyer, an author, a real-estate developer and a former elected official.

At ASU, Gammage is a senior fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute, the Kyl Center for Water Policy, and a senior scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. He also teaches at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

When he was in high school, he had a summer job with Salt River Project. “I’d get to drive around and look at the dams,” he told an oral history interviewer in 2007. “That was sort of my first exposure to Western water issues a little bit.”

“We study water, we think about water, we produce water, we build big water projects, all because of the heritage of the Bureau of Reclamation and John Wesley Powell and the creation of the great Western water projects,” he told ASU Now. “That means that the places where water has historically been studied the most are the land grant institutions, where it’s a by-product of the study of agriculture. The (University of Arizona) has been the water school, forever, and it is a world leader in hydrology and those kinds of things. That’s been weird, because ASU should have been the land grant school. Agriculture is here; it was never in Tucson. But, for historical reasons, it happened differently. ASU has had to come at this from the non-agriculture perspective.”

“I think the niche for ASU is more to focus on the arid West and the way in which water and water rights are managed and adjudicated going into the future. ... The Kyl Center for Water Policy is a really good idea.
— Grady Gammage Jr. 

Gammage thinks that’s beneficial to the perspective ASU brings to water, because the West isn’t about agriculture any more. It’s about people and cities.

“Sometimes that historical overhang of the cultural legacy of water in the West distorts the way water is studied and planned and dealt with,” he said.

Gammage said ASU’s policy orientation — “big-picture water policy” — has evolved over the past 10 or so years.

“I think the niche for ASU is more to focus on the arid West and the way in which water and water rights are managed and adjudicated going into the future,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited about Rhett (Larson) being here. The Kyl Center for Water Policy is a really good idea. To me, that’s the more comfortable niche to exploit: the legal and policy aspects of water. That’s what I do; that’s what I like. I’m not a scientist.” 


The water series

Part 1: The current situation and how we got here.

Part 2: Science and research.

Part 3: Law, policy, challenges — and some good news.


Video and top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now