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Many Viewpoints, One Problem: Managing Water Resources Responsibly

Posted August 28, 2013

Why is a Michigan Technological University professor working to develop a model for water resources management in South Florida, 1,500 miles and several ecosystems removed from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan?

“Water is an extremely valuable resource everywhere,” David Watkins explains. “We’re facing similar challenges around the Great Lakes: the effects of climate change, extreme water levels, pollution from agricultural run-off,” says the Michigan Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering, who specializes in water resources engineering.  “And, like Florida, we have many stakeholders with sometimes competing interests in managing and protecting this vital resource.”

So he and researchers from 10 other universities as far away as Hawaii are studying water resources management in South Florida, including the key component of how stakeholders assess water issues and make policy decisions.  The $4.4 million, 5-year study is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

It’s a multidisciplinary team. Watkins is developing a water management model for the project.  Other specialists are looking at the hydrogeology (ground and surface water geology) of South Florida, the economic aspects of water use and the impact of water use on the environment. Ecological economists are studying potential tradeoffs between the value of the ecosystem and the direct economic benefits that water use can confer. Climate scientists are looking at the effects of climate change and variability on water scarcity, while behavioral scientists are examining people’s biases and beliefs and their effects on the policy and decision making process.

“Our job is not to solve the problem of water scarcity in South Florida,” Watkins explains. “We are using South Florida as a case study to see how multiple stakeholders can cope with complex issues and move towards more sustainable water use .

Water resources management presents a variety of challenges. Housing and business development make certain demands on water resources.  Industry and industrial waste management cause other impacts. Economic development is quite simply dependent on water. Climate change affects water resources, and water use in turn can exacerbate climate change impacts on ecosystems.

“The environment typically gets shortchanged,” Watkins says.  “That’s why we need to look at ecosystem protection as part of the equation. We need new information on the economic value of ecosystem services and the impacts of water use on ecosystems. We want to figure out how we can support both ecosystem protection and economic development.”

The water management system he develops will apply an adaptive management approach, based on various scenarios, which the study team met in June to start defining.  The scenarios assume significant sea level rise,  rainfall and temperature changes over land, and a range of population and economic growth rates.

Stakeholders as well as scientists will participate in the study, helping the team develop water management plans that are most likely to generate public support.

The scientists will meet again in fall to move forward with their work.

Source: Michigan Technological University

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