'Cadillac desert' withstands test of time, technology

December 15, 2010

In 1986, Marc Reisner published “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” a foundational work about the long-term environmental costs of U.S. western states' water projects and land development. It sounded an alarm about the direction of the American West and how it was using its most precious resource. Now it all appears to becoming true.

Researchers applying modern scientific tools and mapping technologies, unavailable during Reisner’s time, find his conclusions for the most part to be accurate and scientifically correct. As a result, current water practices are not sustainable and many dramatic initiatives will be needed to correct the current unsustainable path the West is on. nearly empty lake Download Full Image

In a paper published in the Dec. 14 Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a research team led by John Sabo, an Arizona State University associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, confirms Reisner’s assertions of the illusion of sustainability and ongoing water scarcity in the modern day American West.

“Reclaiming freshwater sustainability in the Cadillac Desert,” is one of eight papers in a special section of PNAS. The special feature explores the challenges presented by the 21st century drought compared with earlier droughts in the Southwest, and analyzes the impact of greenhouse gases on the water supply.

“Cadillac Desert was prescient, published before a comprehensive analysis like this new study was possible,” said Stephanie Hampton, deputy director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Using innovative approaches to scientific synthesis, Sabo and his colleagues provide a rich understanding of the status of Western water, and additional incentive to pursue the vision for sustainability that Cadillac Desert originally inspired in so many of us."

At the core of their analysis, Sabo and his colleagues applied the best available tools to data on water, soil, salt, dams, fish and crop yields. “Our data and analyses confirm with numbers and maps what Reisner deftly described with words,” Sabo said.

Some of the primary findings are:

• Currently, the desert Southwest uses 76 percent of its total surface water to support its population. This will rise to 86 percent with a doubling of urban population (expected in 50 to 100 years). Sustainable balance for the region is achieved when 40 percent of total surface water is used.

•  Salt, which results from the application of large quantities of water to grow drought intolerant food crops on desert farmlands, has likely caused about $2.5 billion in reductions in crop revenues in the Western United States.

• The water footprints of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix are the top three in the United States. The footprint of Los Angeles alone is larger the seven largest eastern U.S. cities (including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.)

“California is arguably the most important farmland in North America,” Sabo said. “But the water needed to support California agriculture (which is exported as food products to the rest of the country) is at odds with healthy populations of freshwater fish like salmon.  

“Can we have salmon and tomatoes on the same table,” he asks. “Something will have to give. We may have to embrace increases in the current rock bottom prices for water and high quality produce or policies that discourage rapid urban population growth and expansion unless we are willing to let go of the idea of healthy rivers, coastal waters and a viable salmon fishery in California.”

Sabo and his team used advanced technologies to come to their conclusions. Geographical information systems, distributed hydrological models and innovative methods to quantify human water scarcity and water footprints were used by the team to dissect patterns of freshwater unsustainability in the western United States.

“We found that many of the most rapidly growing cities and most important croplands in the United States are precisely in those western arid lands incapable of supporting them with regionally generated stream flow,” Sabo said.

To reclaim sustainability in the Cadillac Desert, the team suggests several important and tough measures. One is aimed at lowering the huge amount of surface water required to sustain the region’s population.

“We suggest an initially modest target of a 16 percent reduction (to 60 percent total) in the fraction of stream flow withdrawn,” the researchers state. This alone would require the seven states that make up the region to do several things they have yet to do, including improving urban water use efficiency, implementing a desalinization system by coastal cities, improvements in land-use practices that minimize erosion and sediment infilling of the region’s reservoirs and implementing modified crop portfolios that include only salt tolerant and cash crops.

“The water crisis in the West is a regional one,” Sabo said. “This suggests that local conservation efforts (shorter showers, banning lawns, installing a gray-water recycling systems) are necessary but not sufficient for a solution. Regional and national policy changes are called for,” he added.

“The cards are stacked high against freshwater sustainability in the West,” Sabo added. “Something will have to give, and it likely will be the price of water and high quality produce. If water were priced appropriately (by market forces or policy mandates), we would become much more efficient with water use in cities and on farms, and we would likely do agriculture completely differently than we do it now in the Western U.S.”

In addition to Sabo, the paper’s authors are: Tushar Sinha, North Carolina State University; John Kominoski, University of Georgia; William Graf, University of South Carolina; Laura Bowling and Keith Cherkauer, Purdue University; Gerrit Schoups, Delft University of Technology; Wesley Wallender and Jan Hopmans, University of California, Davis; Michael Campana, Oregon State University; Pam Fuller and Robert Webb, U.S. Geological Survey; Carissa Taylor, Arizona State University; Stanley Trimble, University of California, Los Angeles; and Ellen Wohl, Warner College of Natural Resources, Colorado State University.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis and Arizona State University.


John Sabo, (480) 734-7120

Media contact:

Skip Derra

(480) 965-4823


Program offers helping hand on the road to higher learning

December 15, 2010

ASU reaching out to young students in smaller Arizona communities to open doors to careers in engineering

Victor Robles recently graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – and with hopes of going to graduate school and pursuing research in communications technology for radar systems. In addition to his academic achievements, Robles has been vice president of the ASU chapter of the Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists, an officer in the ASU chapter of the Society of Hispanic and Professional Engineers and a mentor to younger university students. He’d like to earn a doctorate and go on to a career engineering “the most innovative top-of-the-line high technology.” Download Full Image

Robles says that only a few years ago he never would have imagined that today he would be anywhere near this point on a professional career path. He’s been returning to his hometown in Douglas, Ariz., to speak to local high school and community college students about how they might follow in his footsteps.

Offering opportunities

Robles is one of hundreds of students benefitting each year from the Motivated Engineering Transfer Students (METS) program that provides opportunities for careers in engineering and computer science for Arizona students starting out in community colleges. The program has “completely changed my life,” Robles says. “Had it not been for the knowledge I got [through METS] and the encouragement to pursue graduate school, I would have been just another undergraduate student at the library with very little to show for it.”

For many years, hundreds of students have been transferring into ASU’s engineering programs each year. Until 2002, however, there was only a single orientation event to support transfer students. Today, through the growth of the METS program, there are opportunities for scholarships, a campus meeting place, seminars, mentoring and networking opportunities designed specifically for transfer students.

Recruitment and retention results are demonstrating the program’s effectiveness. In the 2009 fall semester, almost 230 students from community colleges and other schools had transferred to ASU engineering programs. In 2010, another 350 students transferred. More impressively, more than 95 percent of junior-year and senior-year students who earn METS program scholarships are graduating. This is a higher retention and graduation rate than those for students entering ASU engineering programs as freshmen.

Overall, junior-year and senior-year engineering transfer students’ graduation rates are 70 percent for men and 60 percent for women. More than 50 percent of the METS transfer students who earned scholarships are now going on to graduate school full time for master’s or doctorate degrees – compared to just 20 percent of engineering transfer students nationwide.

The success of these ASU engineering transfer students is all the more impressive because the scholarship recipients have a lack of financial resources, so many of them also work jobs while attending school full time.

Targeting a talent pool

Success with upper-division transfer students predominantly from the local Maricopa County Community College District helped earn a grant of $2.5 million over five years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009 to expand the METS program efforts coordinated at ASU by engineering faculty members Mary Anderson-Rowland and Armando Rodriguez.

Anderson-Rowland, associate professor in the School for Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, is the leader of the METS expansion project funded by the NSF grant. Rodriguez, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is the co-leader.

The funding is through the NSF’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Talent Expansion Program (STEP), which aims to increase the ranks of young engineers and computer scientists to meet the nation’s growing needs for technological advancement and economic expansion. It’s enabling Anderson-Rowland and Rodriquez to reach beyond the community colleges in the greater Phoenix area and team with five community colleges in rural areas – Central Arizona, Western Arizona, Eastern Arizona, Cochise and Mohave colleges – to intensify recruitment of transfer students.

They’re targeting “a significant pool of untapped engineering talent” among community college students, Anderson-Rowland says.

Support network

The METS-STEP project goal is to develop a supply chain of high-quality engineering students through aiding the community colleges in their outreach to local high school students and by providing classroom materials, tutoring, speakers and tuition scholarships to cover costs of community college engineering courses.

In addition, the project includes “Be an Engineer” events on community college campuses for students and their parents, providing a contingent of experienced student mentors, and hosting ASU orientation programs specifically for transfer students.

Once at ASU, transfer students are supported by the METS Center, where they can study together and get mentoring and training in academic and career planning.

“Our mentors are faculty members and METS Center staff members who are supportive and empathetic,” Anderson-Rowland says. “And new transfer students will find other students to network with who understand the challenges that new students are facing.”

National impact

The NSF and ASU recruitment and retention efforts are important to help stem the drop in the number of United States citizens earning engineering degrees, she says.

METS-STEP also is expected to have a national impact by developing effective ways for other universities and community colleges to form partnerships to encourage students to pursue engineering careers and help them make the transition into university programs. The NSF grant also provides for several types of scholarships to help dozens of transfer students each year cover some of the costs of attending ASU.

With the METS-STEP program's emphasis on encouaging students to pursue opportunities for research experience and to consider graduate school, “We expect to help produce a significant and diverse pool of engineering talent to serve the nation’s needs,” Anderson-Rowland says.

Overcoming struggles

The NSF’s support for ASU’s program has been spurred by a solid track record of recruiting and retention success, she says. Students can attest to her claim. Diana Sarmiento struggled when she first enrolled in community college several years ago. Her grades were so low that she dropped out.

She later started over at Estrella Mountain Community College, earned an associate’s degree in science and came to ASU with help from the METS program. Through METS she learned about time management that helped her cope with the challenges of university engineering studies – even while working jobs in addition to attending school full-time. METS workshops taught her how to effectively compose a resume and develop a portfolio displaying her skills.

“I got some really good advice that helped me get through,” she says.

Sarmiento went on to earn four internship positions – including experience as a research assistant – and work as a teaching assistant. She served as president of the ASU chapter of the Society of Hispanic and Professional Engineers and secretary of the ASU chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Sarmiento expects to graduate in 2011 with a degree in mechanical engineering. She’ll look for a job in industry after graduation but plans to eventually earn a master’s of business administration degree.

Steps to success

Mara Ramos has a similar story. She went to ASU right after high school but found she wasn’t ready for the university environment. She dropped out.

After becoming a single mother and a few false starts at other schools, Ramos began earning good grades at Mesa Community College that would make her eligible for support to return to ASU through the METS program.

Through the program she learned study techniques, was put under the wing of a supportive faculty mentor and participated in an undergraduate research program and research projects led by a faculty member. She learned “you don’t have to be genius to go to graduate school, just a hard worker.”

Today, Ramos is pursuing a doctorate in environmental engineering and hopes to help solve the world’s sanitation and water-quality problems.

Steve Blodgett went back to college in his mid-30s after a career as a photographer. He earned an associate’s degree in general studies at Mesa Community College, then came to ASU through the METS program after deciding to study chemical engineering.

He had earning only a bachelor’s degree in mind, but with Anderson-Rowland’s prodding he set his sights higher.

“I used the METS Center a lot. I learned study skills. I got advice and encouragement to seek support to go to grad school,” he says. “It had a big impact.”

Through internships and research experiences during his time at ASU, he says, “I realized that graduate school is really where I need to be” to have a career that will make an impact. Blodgett is now in a graduate program at the University of Michigan where he will do research in sustainable hydrogen production and other renewable energy resources.

Turning lives around

“It’s gratifying to be reaching young students who don’t have a lot of resources in their small communities to learn about science and engineering career opportunities,” says professor Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has been working for a decade to get support for outreach efforts, scholarships and grants to help students transfer to the university.

“When you show them you care, when you show them how to navigate their way in a big university, and give them tutoring and mentoring,” he says, “it’s amazing to see them turn into dedicated students who are taking their career goals seriously.”

The METS-STEP project also is helping get students connected to industry, which often leads to internship opportunities.

 “Industry leaders want to cultivate a larger pool of engineers to hire, so companies have supported us,” Anderson-Rowland says.

She’s committed to keep the flow of transfer students running high.

“An engineering career was not even on the radar screen for a lot of these students when they were in high school,” she says, “and even when they’re in community college they don’t think they’re smart enough to get scholarships or go to a university. So it’s fulfilling to know you’re providing young people with options in their lives.”

For more information about the METS program, visit http://mets.engineering.asu.edu">http://mets.engineering.asu.edu">http://mets.engineering.asu.edu

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering