Envisioning the Future of Water

Envisioning the Future of Water
The Institute for Water and Watersheds dives in.

Fifty years ago, the nation’s water supply was in crisis. At that time, it was predicted that by the year 2000 there would not be enough usable water to meet the needs of more than half the states, including Oregon. “We have entered a period in which acute water shortages are hampering our industries, our agriculture, our recreation, and our individual health and happiness,” said President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

To help address the problem, Johnson signed legislation to create local centers of water research. In announcing the new law, he said that these centers were to “enlist the intellectual power of universities and research institutes in a nationwide effort to conserve and utilize our water resources for the common benefit.” The Institute for Water and Watersheds (IWW) at Oregon State was one of the first centers to be established. Through the years, the center has had many names, but its mission always has been to provide the research, training, and collaboration needed to sustainably manage our water resources.

Oregon is a rich laboratory in which to study water in a variety of landscapes, from desert to rainforest to ocean. And the Institute for Water and Watersheds draws on a broad array of expertise, from biological and physical sciences to engineering and policy analysis, to address challenges facing the state’s water.

Oregon’s economic vitality flows from water. Irrigation comes to mind, certainly; but also timber, salmon, even semiconductors require water. “Oregon’s water supply is changing, and demand is increasing,” said Todd Jarvis, IWW interim director. “There’s less snowpack in mountains and the snow is melting earlier in the season, storing less for late summer when demand is highest. Shifting populations, land use patterns, climate change, and economic growth are also putting pressure on supply and demand for abundant, clean water.”

IWW is addressing those concerns with a 5-year project that uses the Willamette River Basin as a test case to examine future scenarios related to the region’s water supplies. “Willamette Water 2100,” funded by a $4.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, brings together scientists from OSU, University of Oregon, and Portland State University to study how changing physical and social factors will impact water resources in coming decades.

The project builds on the Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas, created in 2002 by researchers at OSU and University of Oregon. From this platform, researchers and stakeholders can visualize and evaluate management strategies for a sustainable supply of clean water.

“We incorporate water managers’ outlooks, economics, and natural sciences into a computer-modeling tool called Envision,” said Maria Wright, the project coordinator at IWW. “The model makes it possible to explore how climate change, population growth, and economic growth will alter future water resources in the Willamette Basin.”

The Envision software, developed by a team of OSU scientists, uses hydrological, ecological, and economic models to create a range of alternative scenarios based on future water conditions, resource management, and policy decisions. And because the Envision software was created to be open-source and freely available, it can be adapted to other geographic locations to help people in other places as they plan for the future of their own water supplies. By asking “What if?” questions, the model can provide the public and policy­makers with a better understanding of the choices they have to secure a more sustainable future for water.

Published in: Water