Food, energy, and water are vital resources for modern living.
Yet modern societies have yet to figure out how to view and manage these resources as interdependent parts of a single system, thus maximizing their uses and streamlining their costs. In some cases, poor management of one resource has led to unintended consequences for others.
In the United States the problem is especially dire in arid and semiarid regions, where water scarcity and the effects of climate change have complicated resource management, said Kurt Schwabe, a professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California, Riverside.
Schwabe and two UCR colleagues - Hoori Ajami, an assistant professor of groundwater hydrology, and Laosheng Wu, a professor of soil physics and water management specialist - along with a team of fellow researchers from Texas A&M University, have received a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaboratively study and improve upon decision-making processes related to food, energy, and water resources, or FEW.
The grant will focus on two regions of the American Southwest that have experienced resource scarcities in recent years - Southern California and Southern Texas - to better understand the complicated intersections between food production, energy use and production, and water use and production.
"In the past, we've often seen the FEW sectors be analyzed in silos, or as independent entities," Schwabe said. "We understand that there are interactions between these sectors, so now the question is: What can we gain by instead analyzing them within one system?"
Schwabe added that the goal of the three-year project, administered by NSF's Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) initiative, is multifaceted. A diverse lineup of hydrologists, economists, engineers, and agricultural experts will work together to develop modeling systems for future FEW decision-making that will be shared with industry stakeholders, agencies, and policy specialists, particularly those in areas that already are experiencing resource scarcities.
"We'll then put our modeling systems online with visualizations, and users will be able to enter their own parameters to better understand the various interrelationships at play and the costs and benefits of potential actions," Schwabe said.
The need for such modeling systems, he noted, is especially apparent in regions like those the NSF project will cover - Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Antonio - because of those regions' climates and high levels of resource consumption.
"California and Texas are probably the largest water and energy consumers in the country," he said. "In California, the largest user of energy is the water sector, with the largest single user of energy being the California State Water Project that moves water from Northern to Southern California. Likewise, energy producers account for the largest withdrawals of water for the dual purposes of generating hydropower and cooling power plants."
The project also will serve as a training ground for graduate students, who will learn to better evaluate the complex interconnections between hydrology, economics, engineering, agriculture, and climate science, among other areas. According to Schwabe, these students will come to represent "a new type of scientist of the future" who works across disciplines to address problems related to resource management.
Rounding out the research team are four professors from Texas A&M: Principal Investigator Bruce McCarl (agricultural economics) and Efstratios Pistikopoulos (chemical engineering), Rabi Mohtar (biological and agricultural engineering), and Raghavan Srinivasan (biological and agricultural engineering and ecosystem sciences and management).