Project will help Nevada build resiliency to future droughts

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Managing water in northern Nevada’s Truckee-Carson River System requires local communities to balance urban, agricultural and ecosystem needs. Changes in historical climate trends are increasingly expected to make this balancing act more challenging. A competitive grant totaling $3.8 million has been awarded to the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute (DRI), in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, to integrate science and water policy research with extensive community outreach to identify the expected impacts of climate change and solutions for protecting valuable water resources throughout northern Nevada.

The “Water for the Seasons” project will focus on the Truckee-Carson River System as a model for snow-fed arid-land river systems across the American West. Funding includes $1.8 million awarded by the National Science Foundation to the University and $2 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to DRI and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Water supplies in these regions are dependent on the timing, duration and form of winter precipitation and spring run-off. Throughout much of the West, demand for these water supplies is increasing, and many are already stretched to their capacity. Recent climate extremes and trends – including continued drought, increased winter rain instead of snow, reduced annual snowpack, earlier spring runoffs, flash floods and higher temperatures – present challenges to agency water managers, local farmers and ranchers, urban developers and the general public. This project aims to identify new strategies for enhancing the resiliency of communities in northern Nevada to adapt to these challenges and changes.

An interdisciplinary research team with expertise in hydrology, climate science, environmental policy, resource economics, public policy and community outreach will work closely with the region’s diverse stakeholder communities to assess impacts of different drought scenarios and climate extremes; develop models of water supplies and demands resulting from those scenarios; and develop policy options to help stakeholders evaluate and meet challenges posed by warming temperatures and unpredictable water supplies.

“Our goal is to be proactive now so that the region can be better prepared to meet future water management challenges,” said Maureen McCarthy, interim director of the University’s Academy for the Environment and the project’s director. “Ultimately, we are looking for options that will protect our ecosystems, support economic development and enhance the livelihoods of our communities and agricultural producers.”

Sen. Harry Reid commented on the need for the project, “Nevada is seeing record high temperatures and exceptional drought conditions throughout the state. With the recent extreme weather trends, northern Nevada and the Truckee-Carson River System need the tools to better predict and protect their water supplies,” he said. “The framework that will be put in place by the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, will help Nevada deal with the ongoing drought and the impacts of climate change. There is a great need to better manage and conserve our limited water supplies, and I fully support the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture’s assistance, which will help empower northern Nevada to do so.”                

McCarthy explained that a Stakeholder Advisory Group, led by University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, will work closely with the research team and represent interests of tribal communities and municipalities; tribal, federal, state and local water managers; agriculture producers; state and regional economic developers; and federal, state, tribal and nongovernmental groups dedicated to ecosystems protection.

“The uniqueness of this project is the core role of stakeholder involvement right from the get-go,” she said. “We have over a dozen entities ready to partner with us. These are established relationships with longtime partners, who are very comfortable working with the University’s Cooperative Extension.”

Loretta Singletary, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension professor and interdisciplinary outreach liaison, is co-principal investigator in the project with Derek Kauneckis, associate professor of political science, and Staci Emm, Extension Educator. Emm’s programs focus on community development, natural resources and sustainability, while Kauneckis works in public and environmental policy. Singletary has 22 years of experience in Extension work, most of them in Nevada’s communities.

“The project honors the University and Cooperative Extension’s legacy of working in and with communities,” Singletary said. “It’s what we do. We partner with scientists and community stakeholders to better understand and address complex public issues such as adapting to climate change and managing water supplies, which don’t always offer simple solutions.”

Greg Pohll, research professor of hydrology and hydrogeology and the project’s principle investigator from DRI, will co-lead the modeling portion of the project. Pohll, who has studied and modeled snow-fed arid-land river systems for nearly 20 years, will focus on the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe Basin system with three other DRI surface and groundwater experts, Associate Research Professors Justin Huntington and Matt Reeves and Assistant Research Professor Seshadri Rajagopal. All four are alumni of the University of Nevada, Reno.

“DRI is excited to be a part of the collaborative team to develop state-of-the-art computer models to predict how rivers and groundwater will respond to prolonged droughts. We expect these tools will help the team build sustainable solutions to adapt to a variable climate,” Pohll said.

Richard Niswonger and Michael Dettinger, senior research hydrologists and the project’s principal investigators from the U.S. Geological Survey, will co-lead the climate scenario development and the modeling portion of the project focusing on the Carson River system. Dettinger is a leading expert in climate modeling and extreme climate scenarios such as the well-known U.S. Geological Survey ARkStorm project. Niswonger is one of the lead developers of the hydrology model (GSFLOW) that will be used for the study. Additionally, Shane Coors, water resource engineer with Precision Water Resources Engineering, will utilize the new Truckee-Carson Planning Model to conduct operational modeling on the Truckee River.

Three post-doctoral researchers, two graduate students and eight undergraduate summer researchers will be part of the project team, engaging in hands-on learning and supporting all aspects of the project. The undergraduates at the University will be funded for summer research experience in association with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates.

More information on the “Water for the Seasons project will be available online at the University’s Academy for the Environment website,

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