America’s Water – The Changing Landscape of Risk, Competing Demands and Climate

Water is typically thought of as a local issue. But to adequately address the national challenges of water, America needs a countrywide, integrative examination of the nation’s water in the face of changing climate, new energy technologies, agricultural trends, environmental impacts and social values.

In 2014, the Columbia Water Center was awarded a three-year, $2,144,785 National Science Foundation grant to analyze the historical and present state of America’s water use, resources and infrastructure, and to develop a modeling environment to project and prepare for future water challenges. The grant was one of 26 awards, totaling $25 million that the NSF and the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture awarded in 2014 as part of their joint Water Sustainability and Climate program.

Central to the initiative is to look at America’s Water Challenges from a national perspective for the first time.

In many nations, including the United States, water is thought of, studied and administered at a state and local level; the federal regulatory, information collection, and management activities that do exist are fragmented and dispersed through a number of agencies. There are state water plans but no national water plan. Academic research is typically sponsored and conducted locally or regionally with watersheds or specific areas as the focal points.

Increasingly, however, experts recognize the need for a more comprehensive, national approach. As the EPA’s 2012 report, The Importance of Water to the US Economy expressed it, there is “no organized, science-based analysis quantifying the economic contribution of water.” As a result, the report said, the EPA is “unable to systematically analyze the value of water to the US economy, resulting in potentially inefficient resource protection and management decisions.”

The “America’s Water – The Changing Landscape of Risk, Competing Demands and Climate,” initiative aims to address this challenge by systematically assessing the past and current state of America’s national water use, including how variations in climate, energy development and national/global economics over the last century influenced changes in water use and its valuation across the continental US. The project then envisions the future of water in the nation by developing an interactive modeling environment that explicitly considers the capacity expansion of water and energy infrastructure, potential reallocation of cropping patterns, energy and economic scenarios, prescribed water rights/allocation mechanisms and ecological needs.

To address the initiative’s first objective, assessing America’s past and present water situation, the project team is:

  • Developing a publicly available, integrated, demographic, agricultural, climate, hydraulic, energy and water rights database;
  • Analyzing trends in US water consumption and supply, incorporating groundwater levels, reservoir storage, irrigated area, cropped area, crops, crop yields, crop market prices, interest rates, GDP, drought indices, national virtual water trade, energy prices and water rates among others;
  • Conducting statistical/econometric modeling to see how changes in water use patterns correlate to changes in climate statistics, surface water availability and quality, pricing structure, water rights, storage, groundwater access, energy costs, economic factors, conservation initiatives and environmental concerns; what the variation of direct and indirect water costs is across the country, and how these relate to water source, quality and variability; and how the measure of water risk relates to the geographic distribution of water use and supply.

To address the second objective, the team has developed the America’s Water Analysis, Synthesis, and Heuristics (AWASH) model that connects water supply and demand to a wealth of sectors, dynamics, and decisions around water, energy, and food. This framework allows for a more productive analysis of trade-offs and interactions among the sectors. The following elements are in the process of being incorporated into the model:

  • Country-wide processes, such as total energy demand, government policies and the impacts of international trade as well as aggregate measures of population, industrial activity and climate impacts.  We are also studying and estimating the trajectories of key indicators such as the nations’ ecological footprint and the human development index.
  •  A mass-balance hydrological model of water, and a decision model for the production and import and export of food and energy resources using GIS data to provide the parameters for a network of related county models.
  • Optimal times and places to grow specific crops based on water and energy capacity within each county. The time horizon of the model spans over 50 years, to understand the evolution of land use and water and energy infrastructure, The model can provide policy makers with future scenarios of future spatial patterns and long-term transitions under the drivers of global change.
  • Macroeconomic variables on national and local levels, using Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) and including relevant macroeconomic variables at the national, state, and metropolitan levels. In addition, the model will simulate the relationships between economic output, prices, wages, employment, interest rates, consumption, and investment estimated at the national level, for each state, and for each metropolitan area.

To learn more about the model, click here:





In concert with our work to assess and envision the past, present and future of America’s water use, the project team is creating modules and curricula for communication, visualization, education and outreach to make national water issues more transparent and understandable to diverse audiences.

Water, energy, food, climate and the economy are typically viewed as complicated subjects, with overwhelming details and hard-to-visualize inter-relationships, especially across time and space. No curriculum yet captures how market forces and infrastructure stressors impact the water/energy/agriculture nexus of our nation.

To address this gap, the team will use cutting-edge visualization tools such as Google Motion Charts, and Google Public Data Viewer that allow for an effective, interactive presentation of insights into questions such as:

  • How does drought lead to changes in surface and groundwater availability, and how does it affect agricultural production and income at the local, state or national level?
  • How has water use in agriculture and energy production changed at the county level as per capita income has increased?

These modules will be open source available for use in K-12 or university classes or for public presentations by anyone who would like to develop their own custom modules or presentations. In addition, the team will partner with educators and schools at different levels to create a research-infused curriculum for education and outreach for K-12 and undergraduate students.