Water is an integral part of social-ecological systems, but an estimated two billion people living in communities across the globe currently face water scarcity. Communities with limited access to safe, clean water are constrained in their ability to produce food, experience lower rates of economic development, and are afflicted by a diverse array of devastating human health challenges. Given the global projections of population growth and changes in our planet’s climate, it is essential that we develop tools to anticipate and mitigate shortages of humankind’s most critical natural resource.
To achieve this goal, The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab is part of a team developing a regional model capable of projecting how climate change, population growth, and economic development will collectively alter water availability and human consumption patterns in the coming decades. By improving our understanding of the dynamics that lead to water scarcity, our team will be able to forecast when and where water shortages may occur, allowing us to try and mitigate future crises.
Through our application of this model in Oregon’s Willamette River Basin, we’ve identified three key factors that determine the availability of water resources: (1) the costs of storing, transporting, and treating water, (2) the use of institutions to effectively allocate water rights, and (3) the opportunity cost of water, when one use for water competes with another. Our results suggest that even when water is relatively abundant at the regional level, water scarcity can emerge in specific locations and at specific times, such as during late summer when demands for irrigation and urban uses peak. Current work examines the effectiveness of market-based incentive policies in achieving in-stream flow requirements of the Endangered Species Act during times of drought.