News Release

Virginia Tech leads team to assess the processes and vulnerabilities of groundwater self governance

“We need to act proactively to ensure we are able to grow food for a growing population under the prospect of decreasing water,” said Landon Marston, lead researcher and Virginia Tech faculty member

Grant and Award Announcement

Virginia Tech

Central pivot irrigation system

image: A central pivot irrigation system using groundwater from the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer in southwest Kansas. This aquifer has been heavily pumped for decades, producing large water-level declines that threaten its viability as a continuing resource for irrigated agriculture. view more 

Credit: James J. Butler for Virginia Tech

Marston leads a multi-institutional team of researchers that was recently awarded a nearly $1.6 million grant by the National Science Foundation to develop new theories of how socio-environment diversity determines the effectiveness, resilience, and adaptability of groundwater self-governance regimes. Their research examines the viability of these regimes under current conditions but also seeks to understand how they would behave in the event of social or environmental changes.

Due in large part to the demands of irrigating cropland, groundwater depletion is a growing concern in many areas throughout the United States. If left unchecked, groundwater depletion can increase pumping costs and deteriorate water quality.

“Continuing unsustainable groundwater use will threaten farmers’ livelihoods, lead to the collapse of rural communities, and impact national and global food supplies,” said Marston. “This project investigates promising stakeholder-driven solutions to groundwater depletion.”

The team will collect, synthesize, and analyze social and environmental data within the specific communities to better understand how their self-governance institutions function. The multi-method approach will include public document analysis, structured surveys, qualitative interviews, and behavioral experiments. Environmental and social data will be integrated within a modeling framework to test the effectiveness, resilience, and adaptability of different groundwater governance regimes, particularly under changing economic and climatic conditions.

Smith will conduct farmer interviews and surveys to understand how they make irrigation and farming decisions under different self-governance regimes.

“Self-governance of the irrigator community appears to have the best chance of achieving meaningful pumping reductions that would extend the lifespan of the aquifers and the agricultural production that they support,” said James Butler, Jr., senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey. “The interviews and surveys will help us explore which self-governance systems are best for achieving these reductions and how transportable these systems are from one area to another.”

Additionally, the team will develop a web browser-based behavioral experiment that tests how farmers respond in specific scenarios, allowing the team to identify behavioral responses that are difficult to isolate in real life. After the experiment is developed, it will be tested on undergraduate students, to ensure validity in a controlled setting, prior to being conducted in the field either in-person or online.

By involving students in the experimental testing, the researchers hope to ultimately work toward solving society’s sustainability issues. The project will train three undergraduate and four graduate students as well as a postdoctoral fellow in the science of socio-environmental systems. Students will be taught how to combine theories and methods from multiple disciplines to find a new approach to understanding the water cycle, explained  David Yu, assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue University.

“Our understanding of the physics of soil and water flow outpaces our understanding of how human decisions shape the water cycle,” said Zipper. “To meet the current and future water sustainability challenges, students need to be comfortable thinking about both physical and social aspects of the water cycle, and our project will provide this integrative training to students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

Data collected for this project will build on numerous existing environmental datasets, allowing the team to better understand the hydrologic, agronomic, and environmental processes occurring in the study areas. The areas in both Kansas and Colorado have annual groundwater use data obtained through flowmeters on pumping wells, which can provide information on water rights, annual water use, and relevant ancillary data. Marston, Zipper, and Butler will integrate these data within a model that represents the coupled interactions between farmers, irrigated croplands, and the underlying aquifer.  

The team’s overall goal is to advance theory on self-governance of groundwater commons and create new tools that can be transferred within and beyond the study communities, to benefit the entire nation.

“We need to act proactively to ensure we are able to produce food for a growing population under the prospect of decreasing water supplies due to climate change,” Marston said. 

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