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ASU center goes river graphing

March 18, 2022

The Colorado River — and the critical water it provides to Arizona — has long been a center of attention for communities and policymakers across the state. But it moved into the national spotlight in August 2021, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior declared a shortage on the river for the very first time.

Understanding where Arizona’s water goes and how changes affect our supply is a challenging task — even for experts. And with the pressure of new water restrictions that took effect in 2022, more Arizonans are wondering what the shortage means for them.

Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy at Morrison Institute and Decision Theater are providing answers with a visualization tool called the The Arizona Colorado River Visualization Enterprise. Also known as the Arizona CuRVE Project, this digital tool will offer detailed information about the shortage’s impacts in a format that anyone can access and understand.

“It's really important for the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water to have a good idea of what kinds of supply choices there are in the future,” says Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center and a Global Futures Scholar.

Lake Mead with exposed waterline due to low water levels

The visible waterline of Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River, illustrates the current water shortage. A two-decade drought and historic over-allocation have taken a toll on the Colorado River, and climate experts predict a hotter, drier future. With the pressure of new water restrictions that took effect in 2022, more Arizonans are wondering what the shortage means for them. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Fixing trickle-down river data

Drought has taken a toll on the Colorado River for over two decades, and climate experts predict a hotter, drier future. Historic over-allocation of Colorado River supplies has added to these pressures. Current models of the river offer big-picture information, but don’t get down to the impacts on communities or irrigation districts. This makes it hard for local water managers to make informed decisions.

“What you need to know if you're a city water resources adviser is different from what you need to know if you are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or the Central Arizona Project,” Porter says.

It's really important for the 40 million people who rely on Colorado River water to have a good idea of what kinds of supply choices there are in the future.

— Sarah Porter, Kyl Center director

The Arizona CuRVE Project aims to democratize information about the Colorado River shortage. This means not only making that data available and easy to understand, but also presenting that data in a politically neutral way. The project gives water users a safe space to converse and see the true effects of different water policy choices.

“The way that the Colorado River is allocated during shortage conditions depends on literally hundreds of different contracts, laws and regulations,” says Kathryn Sorensen, the director of research at the Kyl Center. “We want to distill that information in a useful and neutral manner so that people can do the exploring on their own and come to their own conclusions.”

A fount of information for Arizonans

While seven western U.S. states and northern Mexico depend on the Colorado River, the CuRVE Project focuses on the shortage impacts in Arizona. The visualization tool will be most helpful for Colorado River entitlement holders, such as irrigation districts, mines, power companies, cities and tribes. It will allow users to walk through different water scenarios in Arizona, interact with hydrologic models and explore the outcomes of different policy decisions.

By seeing how the shortage and policy decisions will affect other sectors as well as their own, Porter hopes that the tool will help water managers find new possibilities for mutually beneficial water transactions. But you don’t have to be a water manager to use it.

“This tool is also going to be helpful for individuals who are reading the news about shortage and are concerned. It's going to help them get a better idea of what the real risks are to them personally or to their community,” Porter says. “Our hope is that it would help people who want to become more involved in water decisions.”

Four professionals look at screens in the Decision Theater's Drum environment

Decision Theater is creating a digital tool that anyone can access online to understand how the Colorado River shortage affects them. Visitors to Decision Theater will also be able to walk through the CuRVE Project tool in the 360-degree, immersive digital environment known as the Drum, pictured here. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Current methods

The Kyl Center, part of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, promotes research and collaboration to support sound water stewardship for Arizona and the western U.S. But to bring its water data to life and create the CuRVE Project tool, the center turned to ASU’s modeling and data visualization powerhouse, Decision Theater.

Decision Theater’s goal is to bring leaders and experts together in a neutral space to understand and solve complex issues, using interactive models that it creates with its advanced technical capabilities.

“The management of water, especially in a shared system, is about as complex as it gets,” says Jon Miller, director of Decision Theater.

The Kyl Center developed databases that hold information about who has allocations of Colorado River water and how the allocations change during a shortage, as well as central Arizona water providers’ sources and uses of water.

Decision Theater is combining these databases and translating them into a publicly accessible digital tool. This tool will let people experiment with different choices as they respond to water shortage and policy scenarios. Visitors to Decision Theater will also be able to walk through the CuRVE Project tool in the 360-degree, immersive digital environment known as the Drum.

“The collaborative nature of the Decision Theater approach brings many stakeholder perspectives together, while the integrated and visualized data provides a fact-based understanding of this complex problem. Decision Theater will not detail the perfect solution to the critically important water management problem. It will provide a forum for informed, fact-based stakeholder engagements leading to better decisions made by more informed decision-makers,” Miller says.

Data stream of stream data

Big cities in the state typically have multiple water sources, such as groundwater, reclaimed water and water from other rivers like the Salt River and Verde River.

Because of this, the databases that feed the CuRVE Project pull water information not just from the Colorado River, but from many other sources as well. This is a key part of what makes the tool so practical. As available water from the Colorado River goes down, the CuRVE Project can show how reliance on the other water sources changes.

“For example, we know that communities will turn to groundwater, which is a finite resource. When you look at everyone using a lot more groundwater, that has implications for long-term water supply,” Porter says. “By providing this granular information, we help people start to think more holistically about the situation.”

MORE: Learn how ASU researchers are using microalgae at a city of Mesa wastewater treatment facility to make electricity and biofuel

Tapping into multiple perspectives

To help inform the types of questions the CuRVE Project tool should address, the team assembled a steering committee that includes ASU experts, such as Professor Dave White, associate vice president of research advancement, and Assistant Professor Margaret Garcia, as well as a variety of Arizona water managers from mines, power companies, tribal communities, cities, agriculture and private water systems.

“We've been careful to include representatives on our steering committee from all of these different groups. We want to make sure that everybody's perspective is represented as we build the tool,” Sorensen says.

The committee gave input on the different types of hydrologic scenarios, policy options and shortage algorithms that they might want to explore with the tool. Sorensen herself also brings valuable insider perspective to the project; she is a water economist who formerly ran water utilities for the cities of Phoenix and Mesa.

Charting the future of water

Decision Theater is currently building out the tool’s simulations, which are based on authoritative research on possibilities of snowpack — a key source of water for the Colorado River — and possibilities of how water demand and use could change.

“A simple example would be, what if we had a spell of three or four years of below-average snowpack now, when the reservoirs are at an all-time low? What would that mean?” Porter says.

A broad range of such scenarios will allow CuRVE Project users to examine the impact of different policy choices in those contexts.

“In all of our development activities, we work closely with collaborators and clients to create custom solutions satisfying the needs of all stakeholders, such as scientists trying to communicate complex problems, users of the tool and decision-makers who are informed by the tool’s outputs,” Miller says. “Our goal is to foster understanding and informed conversation through the creation of a data visualization tool that accurately presents information in an easily digestible manner.”

Sorensen notes that while the tool will focus on modeling the shortage of the Colorado River, it isn’t about predicting waterless doom. Instead, users will find insights into Arizona’s other available water sources.

“The problems on the Colorado River are critical, and there are some huge challenges ahead of us. But Arizonans have long known that this day would come, and for the most part, do have plans and alternative supplies that they can rely on when there isn't enough Colorado River to go around. We’re going to present the model in that context,” she says.

screenshot of AZ Water Blueprint map showing CAP and SRP canals, rivers and streams, and community water system service areas

Click to interact with map. This map from the Arizona Water Blueprint shows the Central Arizona Project and Salt River Project canals, rivers and streams, and community water system service areas in central and southern Arizona. Image courtesy Arizona Water Blueprint, Kyl Center for Water Policy

Be water-wise, my friend

The Arizona CuRVE Project represents the next natural step for the Kyl Center, which has been supporting productive water discussions in the state since 2015.

“I think the way we best serve Arizona is that, as part of Morrison Institute for Public Policy, we don't have any specific interests. We are truly neutral in water policy discussions, because we are not an irrigation district or a city,” Porter says. “That gives us a freedom and perspective that most of the people in water discussions in Arizona don't have.”

In addition to publishing a number of policy papers, the center also developed the Arizona Water Blueprint, an interactive map of the state’s water resources and infrastructure that offers data visualizations and multimedia content on important water-related topics.

“We are fundamentally trying to improve decision-making around water resources and make sure that people who want to be involved have access to the information that they need,” Porter says.

Learn more about the Colorado River water shortage and stay up to date on the CuRVE Project.

The Arizona Colorado River Visualization Enterprise is partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Top photo courtesy Shutterstock.

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Shedding light on Phoenix's most heat-vulnerable

March 18, 2022

ASU student aims to better understand what communities are under more risk of heat-health threats

There’s no debate, heat-related illnesses are common during the summer in Phoenix.

Year after year, nearly 3,000 people visit Arizona emergency rooms because of heat-related illnesses. Heat-related deaths have increased by more than 180% in the last decade, and in 2020, there were 323 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County alone. 

Cities like Phoenix are relying on current heat-vulnerability models for mitigation strategy decision-making that, while helpful, are fraught with limitations — due in part to the way they are constructed and the data used — and risk, leaving out some of the most vulnerable populations in need.

Joseph Karanja, a graduate student in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, is conducting research to create one of the most holistic views of how heat disproportionately impacts specific communities around Phoenix to better understand how we as a city can help arm the most vulnerable against looming heat-health threats.  

“Comparing outcomes in Maricopa County, homeless account for about 40% of the deaths, yet census datasets (the information that powers current heat-health modeling) cannot account for that population,” Karanja said. “We are simply relying on these data because of the absence of an alternative. I want to challenge that. I want to prompt people to think of alternative data sets and alternative ways of thinking.” 

In his research, Karanja interrogates not only what variables are most important to include in heat-vulnerability models, but using statistical techniques, he creates new ways to unify disparate information to gain new perspectives on how communities are experiencing varying heat stress and heat-health impacts. 

Karanja recently presented a commentary paper titled “Methodological Rationale for Heat Vulnerability Indices as Predictors of Heat-Health Outcomes” at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in February, discussing a portion of this research.

“There has been an increasing amount of work, globally, focused on improved understanding of what variables serve as the best metrics for assessment of heat-health outcomes,” said Matei Georgescu, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a co-author of the study. “Where is exposure to extreme heat greatest? Which populations have the greatest sensitivity to extreme heat? What barriers, both physical and social, need to be removed to enhance the capacity of populations to adapt to extreme heat?

“Joseph's work directly tackles this critical research gap by focusing on simplifying the overall approach through a re-conceptualization of the very methodological aspects that are the foundation for heat vulnerability indicator development. His work is helping to reshape the very foundation that is required for characterizing heat-health outcomes across global cities.” 

portrait of Joseph Karanja in front of a map

Joseph Karanja.

Reenvisioning a complex process and unifying data 

At the heart of his research, Karanja is creating a new composite heat-vulnerability metric — a metric that combines not only biophysical (heat) data, but also socioeconomic data from various sources to give researchers and policymakers a finer lens into who is most heat-health vulnerable.

Karanja explains that by coupling these metrics and finding the optimal way to meld them together, his research hopes to capture the overlooked nuances of how heat disproportionately affects communities, which include: differences in how heat exposure impacts people living in different geographical parts of the city that may or may not have infrastructure that can reduce heat impact; and differences in income and people’s ability to have reliable access to air conditioning or beneficial tree canopy in their yards. 

“We need to continuously look at the current data, new data; evaluate how we are continuously constructing metrics; see how those metrics influence health outcomes and inform decision-making; and at the same time, (think about) how do those health outcomes inform the construction of the metrics and the collection of data in the first place,” he said. “We're creating a feedback loop system.” 

Karanja’s research not only interrogates the metrics we currently use, but evaluates our current approach to the process, reimagining it as an evolving cycle that will continue to be refined as more information becomes available. 

“I have never met a student with a greater desire, an unquenchable thirst, to learn,” said Georgescu, who serves as Karanja’s academic adviser. “He is undaunted by challenges and is unfazed at immersing himself in completely new fields. Joseph is a future global star. I am very excited to be a part of the next three to four years of his experience at Arizona State University.

“I am equally excited to see where his passions and thirst for making a global difference lead him down the road, beyond ASU.” 

A world away 

Karanja’s research and educational drive have ties to a humble beginning. 

A native of Webyue, Kenya, a modest town near the eastern border of Uganda with makeshift settlements and a sugar cane plantation, Karanja says it’s his community that rallied around him and enabled him to pursue his educational endeavors.

“I was brought up by a single mother, so my story is being part of a lot of struggle in Kenya,” Karanja said. “Basic education was not free at the primary school level and in secondary school level. It's actually the community that came together and sponsored me to get to high school.”

He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Kenya from Kenyatta University with a focus on environmental planning and management, focusing on rural neighborhood planning, regional and urban planning, and governance issues that relate to planning and design. He says he sees his work today with analyzing heat vulnerability as a mechanism for better understanding society. 

“When I came to the U.S., I really wanted to study urban planning, but I realized having been brought up in squalor-like settlements, there are so many urban challenges,” Karanja said. “If you are to solve challenges tied to heat, to some large extent, you are dealing with climate change problems associated with population growth and rapid urbanization.

“You’re, in a way, solving so many problems just by looking at heat in all its multi-dimensionality.” 

The right place to start 

Karanja hopes his research not only will lay the groundwork for future heat-vulnerability models to better characterize heat-health outcomes in cities, but one day, he hopes to be able to conduct similar research in his home country in Kenya. 

He credits his supportive environment throughout his academic career for the opportunities he’s had and the impact he plans to make. 

“I want to thank people who have been significant in my life, believed in and nurtured me,” Karanja said. “I’ve had a very supportive environment, and to provide some contribution to the scientific community towards the construction of heat matrices, I believe here at Arizona State University is the right place to start.”  

Top photo courtesy

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications