A team of researchers from UC Riverside and Texas A&M University (TAMU) have received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further their research into the intersections between agriculture, energy and water resources in the desert areas of the southwestern United States. In an era of increased climate change and dwindling local resources, the grant is earmarked to fund research into efficient and effective solutions to these issues in the resource-strained southwest.

The grant recipients are Professor of Environmental Economics and Policy Kurt Schwabe, Assistant Professor of Groundwater Hydrology Hoori Ajami and Professor of Soil Physics and water management specialist Laosheng Wu. The three UCR academics were joined by TAMU’s Professor of Agricultural Economics Bruce McCarl, Professor of Chemical Engineering Efstratios Pistikopoulos, Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering Rabi Mohtar and Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and Ecosystem Sciences and Management Raghavan Srinivasan.

The team’s work will be among the first efforts to study and understand food production, energy production and use and water management as interlinked activities. Funded by the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program, the three-year cooperative venture will emphasize the ecoregions around Riverside (California desert) and TAMU (South Texas plains). Previously, studies of the effects that each of the aforementioned factors had on each other and the surrounding region were conducted independently. It is hoped that, by discovering the complex effects and interactions of food, energy and water (FEW) management, future policymakers will be able to provide for human needs while minimizing environmental and economic costs.

The cooperation between UCR and TAMU is founded in the wide variety of expertise across the research team. Professor Ajami, for instance, has applied her knowledge of groundwater hydrology to study and shape the water component of the project. In her lab, Ajami is developing “surface water-groundwater models” to help understand how differing climate conditions and geographic factors shape a region’s water availability. “We will use variety of observations such as groundwater level observations and stream flow to make sure the model can accurately represent historic system response,” Ajami explains over email, adding, “The decision support system tool will help the users to assess the impacts of various management and policy decisions on future water, food and energy availability.”

Particular emphasis is to be placed on cooperation between companies and government agencies involved in different sectors. “We want to develop models that think outside the box,” explains McCarl. “We want to facilitate decision makers in considering broader solutions. In doing this we want to investigate issue (sic) in Southern California and South Central Texas to learn about the issue, technological possibilities, barriers and other regional matters and incorporate that in our modeling.” By lowering such barriers, the researchers hope to achieve greater clarity and increase the potential of successful coordination between different parties.

By promoting cooperation and communication, the researchers hope to avoid the pitfalls of the insular, narrow-minded approach common today. “We want to illustrate to agency managers, stakeholders and the government of the consequences of a business-as-usual approach to resource management in which individual sectors, such as water or energy, work to optimize actions within their own sector without consideration of the unintended consequences on the other sectors,” says Schwabe. “By illustrating these consequences, albeit unintended, we can highlight the benefits of working across sectors collaboratively.” The production and sourcing of food, energy and water often requires sacrifices in one sector to allow for gains in another. By formulating models in which suppliers cooperate, the researchers hope to ensure that all runs smoothly and with minimal cost.

While the researchers plan to create models of potential resource management schemes, they are adamant that their role is to advise rather than to directly provide solutions. According to McCarl, “As scientists we don’t directly act to overcome these issues. Rather, we try to better support local decision makers by providing tools with which alternatives can be evaluated, provide tools that might suggest out of the box alternatives and provide potential alternatives that might be considered.”

The location of the project rests mainly on the critical state of Southern California’s resources. The dry region hosts a major population and resources are relatively scarce. According to Ajami, “We are living in a semi-arid environment that has recently experienced an unprecedented multi-year drought. Extreme temperatures and low precipitation had considerable impacts on water and energy sectors. Given the growing demand for water, food and energy in this region, we need to better understand the interconnections between these systems in order to manage them sustainably.”

UC Riverside’s location at the intersection of a desert ecosystem and an urban metropolis offers a unique position from which to observe the issues the project seeks to understand. The cooperation with TAMU, given TAMU’s location in a completely different region facing similar issues allows for a unique variety of observational opportunities and perspectives to come into play. “By performing a comparative study between the two regions, California and Texas, we can learn a lot about the complex interrelationships among water, energy and food resources and how resource availability is impacted by social, climatic, economic and other pressures,” says Ajami.

The research team seems optimistic about the future of the project. Ajami emphasizes that, “Solving the resource management challenges of the 21st century requires interdisciplinary research and it is great to see that our funding agencies support these types of initiatives.” Over the next three years, the team will use its unique resources and outlook to address the FEW issues of the future.