$1.4 million project studies water sustainability in Great Plains

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An outpouring of research funds is helping a group of Kansas State University researchers study how human activity and climate change affect Central Great Plains water systems.

The interdisciplinary group -- which includes more than eight researchers across three colleges and six departments -- has received a highly competitive three-year $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program. The project seeks to improve the sustainability of economically important agricultural systems, biologically significant aquatic ecosystems, urban population clusters and clean water supplies.

Melinda Daniels -- an adjunct professor of geography at Kansas State University and associate research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania -- is leading the project, which focuses on the Smoky Hill Watershed as a case study. The watershed extends from eastern Colorado to near Manhattan, where it joins the Kansas River. It is a narrow basin that stretches across Kansas' strong east-west precipitation gradient, which is drier in western Kansas and gets wetter further east. Other watersheds north and south of the Smoky Hill are similar, which makes it a good model for other Great Plains watersheds.

The Great Plains region has longstanding water quality and quantity concerns because of extreme climate variability, intensive water uses and land uses.

“Both human and natural systems in this area depend on adequate freshwater for survival, but are fragile, quickly and dramatically affected by climate fluctuations, and potentially face disaster given either natural or human-driven climate scenarios," Daniels said. "Our project ties together the factors that drive land-use decisions and water-use decisions in an attempt to build resiliency in both human and natural systems so that the region can thrive economically, culturally, and still produce invaluable ecosystems services like drinking water supply, groundwater recharge, biodiversity and recreation."

The research team wants to prevent future water scarcity and water quality problems.

"This project promotes interdisciplinary analyses of relevant human and natural system processes that are operating in the Smoky Hill Watershed," said Marcellus Caldas, assistant professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences and the university's point person for the project.

Interactions among human and natural systems occur at diverse scales and environments. Understanding how human land-use and water-use decisions affect environmental systems can be challenging, Daniels said.

"We have modeling components that relate the two," Daniels said. "For example, we can look at how crop pricing influences land cover, which then influences water runoff and groundwater recharge, which then influences the amount of water flowing to the rivers, which then influences how fish are able to reproduce that year. To really understand this complexity requires a broad range of expertise, ranging from political science to hydrology, and one of my most important roles as project leader will be to coordinate between these disciplines."

The interdisciplinary team comes from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering.

Four researchers -- including Caldas; Joe Aistrup, dean of Auburn University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and former associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of political science at Kansas State University; Jason Bergtold, associate professor of agricultural economics; and Jessica Heier Stamm, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering -- will develop land-cover change and human decision-making models developed from an extensive survey of landowners and water users in the basin. The scientists will interview landowners to better understand what is driving land-use decisions and how water scarcity influences those decisions. For example, they want to understand why and when a farmer may switch from rain-fed crops to center-pivot crops.

Biologists David Haukos and Martha Mather -- both adjunct associate professors in the Division of Biology and researchers with the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit -- will investigate how water level changes affect fish, plants and wildlife in streams and wetlands of the Smoky Hill basin.

In the College of Agriculture, Bergtold will work with the other social scientists to model how economic forces, such as crop prices and fuel prices, influence land- and water-use decisions.

In the College of Engineering, Aleksey Sheshukov, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, will further develop a land-use and hydrologic model for the Smoky Hill Watershed. He will refine precipitation inputs to better simulate climate variations, such as intense storm events. Heier Stamm will take efficiency models that companies use to streamline manufacturing and apply them to policy-making processes to reach sustainability quickly.

"This project is a great example of collaborative work among K-State faculty from different departments," Caldas said.

The research grant also will support several graduate student researchers in various colleges and departments.

"The project brings funding from a high-profile competition to advance K-State's reputation as a top-quality research institution," Daniels said.

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