NSF award will expand scope, impact of ASU water research

August 21, 2015

In the grips of long-term drought, the Colorado River Basin and the cities that rely on its water face unprecedented challenges and significant uncertainty with a warming climate and large-scale land-use change. They are developing new water-resource policies for a future of increasing uncertainty.

Now, water managers and decision makers of cities of the Colorado River Basin will be able to take greater advantage of Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) thanks to a new $4.5 million National Science Foundation award. Lake Mead A new National Science Foundation grant will allow ASU to expand the geographic scope of Decision Center for a Desert City's work beyond Phoenix to include other cities dependent on Colorado River water sources, such as Lake Mead. Download Full Image

The four-year award, the third made to DCDC in its 10-year history, brings the total NSF investment in the center to $18 million. It will allow ASU to expand the geographic scope of DCDC’s work beyond Phoenix to include cities dependent upon Colorado River water in states like Colorado, Nevada and California to explore transformational changes that will be necessary to sustain water supplies well into the future.

Decision Center for a Desert City, which is a research unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, conducts climate, water and decision research, and it develops innovative tools to bridge the boundary between scientists and decision makers.

DCDC researchers work closely with the Decision Theater Network to engage stakeholders using models and simulations that visualize alternative futures and to promote dialogue about sustainability solutions.

“It is an unprecedented time to conduct this type of use-inspired research for the Colorado River Basin region,” said Dave White, director of Decision Center for a Desert City and Global Security Initiative fellow. “It comes with a greater sense of urgency and a greater sense of understanding of the scale and scope of the changes that are likely necessary to transition the cities and the region into a more sustainable state over the next several decades.”

The work of the center's researchers is interdisciplinary, integrated across areas such as hydrology, water science, economics, anthropology, geography, policy and sustainability, White explained. A primary tool developed by DCDC is WaterSim 5.0, a “systems dynamics model” that can help drought-ravaged cities anticipate a range of possible future conditions and build capacity for sustainable water-resource management and climate adaptation. David Sampson, a research scientist with the center, developed the model.

WaterSim’s power lies in its ability to bring together the multifaceted issues faced by water users and suppliers and play out scenarios so to provide a clearer picture of what the future might hold. Until now WaterSim had integrated the needs and policies of the 33 cities that make up the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“At the center of everything is the question, ‘How do we make better decisions about the future and managing our resources in a sustainable way?’” said White, an associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions. To do that the center will conduct research across four integrated project areas.

One integrated project area will focus on the biophysical process models that simulate climate change, urbanization, land use and hydrological processes in the Colorado River Basin to produce a set of climate and land-use scenarios. The second integrated project area will focus on models of the social, economic and institutional considerations of the region, the third will focus on systems modeling and simulations and the fourth integrated project area will develop an inventory of transformational solutions to water governance.

The integrated project area teams will be led by co-investigators Kelli Larson (School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and School of Sustainability), Enrique Vivoni (School of Earth and Space Exploration), Michael Hanemann (W. P. Carey School of Business) and Amber Wutich (School of Human Evolution and Social Change).

“We are building on our strengths — water-resource management and climate-change adaptation — which we have been doing for 10 years now at DCDC,” White said. “Understanding how water is developed, supplied, delivered and managed and how those activities will be affected by climate change is central. We are building on the use of WaterSim and simulation modeling as a tool for science and policy integration and a tool for stakeholder engagement.”

Ray Quay, director of stakeholder relations at DCDC, leads the center’s efforts to connect university science with policy and decision-making.

White said a goal of the new NSF award is to explore alternatives that need to be considered to make the Colorado River Basin region more sustainable in an uncertain future.

“There is a growing sense that there needs to be a greater discussion about trade-offs,” he said. “The current system is set up based on legacy decisions, and we want to critically evaluate them. We want to inform a science-based public discourse about the situation as opposed to just accepting this as the way it is.”

Through the expanded use of DCDC and WaterSim, researchers will build a suite of robust alternatives for the cities that rely on Colorado River water to strengthen their positions and not be as vulnerable to unforeseen change.

“We want to get not only ahead of this current drought and crisis but to use this energy and opportunity to think about the next 30 years, or the next 100 years,” White said.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


The road less taken: Freshman cycles from Flagstaff to ASU to start college career

August 21, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of our back-to-school spotlight on notable incoming students. The series will run during the first two weeks of the fall semester. Read our other profiles here.

To most people, biking from Flagstaff to the Phoenix metro area at the mercy of an Arizona summer sounds more like a grueling punishment than a memorable adventure. And when Mia Armstrong’s father proposed the idea to her, she admits she was initially wary. ASU freshman rode on a tandem bike with her dad from Flagstaff to the Valley. Mia Armstrong and her dad, Joe Bob, prepare for their journey from Flagstaff to the Valley. Despite the sport and surname they have in common, they are no relation to the famous cyclist Lance Armstrong.<br><br> Photo courtesy Mia Armstrong. Download Full Image

“The whole idea of it was super scary, and there was a big prospect for failure,” she said, “but when it came down to it, I thought I’d probably regret it more if I didn’t do it than if I did do it — even if there were some hiccups along the way.”

So an itinerary was planned, and Armstrong and her father set out for a 235-mile ride that would mark the beginning of her journey as a student at Arizona State University.

Getting to know Mia

At the age of 17, the global studies freshman is at once self-assured and open-minded, with an air of spontaneity that is refreshingly anomalous.

She takes politics seriously but can still laugh at Donald Trump’s hair. She cares enough to prepare a week’s worth of healthy meals ahead of time but is an unabashed coffee lover.

A native of Flagstaff, Arizona, she was imbued with a love of the outdoors from birth.

“Flagstaff has a really active culture so [my family and I] would go skiing and snowboarding and hiking and canyoneering and biking,” said Armstrong, who will also be a student in Barrett, The Honors College.

Her appreciation for politics came later.

Young Democrat

During her freshman year of high school, Armstrong took a government class that happened to be taught by an “amazing” teacher who inspired her to become more politically involved.

The National Honor Society student began participating in speech and debate and mock trial. She also joined High School Democrats of America and participated in the Inspire Arizona program, helping register young people to vote.

“I like that politics provide a way to change things,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s cool to organize a movement and have people working together toward something.”

She is now a member of College Democrats of America and has worked as an intern in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Congresswoman and ASU faculty associate Kyrsten Sinema. A cursory look at her Twitter page reveals that she is already paying close attention to the November 2016 election. Armstrong even tweeted when she registered to vote, though she is still undecided on a candidate.

“There’s a lot of time [until the election], and I’m trying to keep an open mind and just see what happens,” she said.

Working together on the road

Instead of taking separate bicycles, Armstrong and her father – no relation to the identically surnamed Lance, though her father did know him peripherally when he biked in college – decided to use a tandem bike for their southern sojourn, mainly for safety reasons.

“Some of the roads were really busy, and there were times it got kind of scary,” Armstrong said.

Though her father had done long rides before, this was her first time taking a long road trip by bike. Armstrong had mainly mountain-biked.

Altogether, they biked for a total of three days.

On the first day of their trek, Monday, Aug. 10, they set out from Flagstaff around 9 a.m., navigating through the red rocks of Sedona to Cottonwood, then to Clarkdale, then stopping for lunch in Jerome before making their way up Mingus Mountain and down the other side to Prescott around 8:45 p.m.

Their total mileage for the day was 110.

“When we finally got to my grandparents’ house where we stayed that night, I kind of teared up a little because we didn’t know if we were going to make it and we did,” Armstrong said.

Upon reaching Prescott, Armstrong and her father got a much-deserved multi-day break when she attended a retreat there for Flinn Scholars. At 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, it was time to head out again. They traveled a total of 60 miles to Wickenburg that day, getting there in just about four hours, at 7:30 p.m.

The very next day they were on the road by 4 a.m., finally reaching the Scottsdale area around 10:30 a.m. after biking a total of 65 miles, exhausted but elated at their accomplishment. 

Meditations on a journey

There were definitely hiccups, as Armstrong had envisioned. Only 20 minutes into the trip their speedometer broke and, later, they ran out of spare tubes for their tires. They took it all in stride, though, employing the help of Google Maps and making a pit stop in Cottonwood for extra inner tubes.

The last leg of the expedition was the roughest, Armstrong said. Though it was hardly the longest, it was the hottest and they were the most tired. Toward the end, they stopped every 10 miles or so, just long enough to cool off and chug a 32-ounce Gatorade. On one of these stops, they took refuge in the shade of an underpass.

Armstrong recalled it with amusement: “We stopped under an underpass once and just laid in the shade … we were just laying on the dirt under the underpass.”

There are other memories that weren’t as amusing, though.

During a series of downhill switchbacks that were “really scenic and beautiful” in the Yarnell area, Armstrong became reflective and somewhat sullen upon recalling the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy that took the lives of 19 City of Prescott firefighters, called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, in 2013.

“That was definitely an emotional spot. And that was one of those times when I was like, ‘Wow, this is really hard, but this is not a millionth as hard as what those people went through, and what their families went through afterward.’ So that was something to think about,” Armstrong said.

And there was plenty of time to think. Having agreed with her father ahead of time to eschew headphones in favor of conversation and appreciating the nature around them, Armstrong found it was often a challenge to simply be present in the moment.

“It was a bit meditative at points, and when it got really hard I would just close my eyes and try to visualize finishing,” she said.

New opportunities

Coming from a graduating class of 17 at Basis Flagstaff, Armstrong is finding the head count at ASU’s Tempe campus to be delightfully overwhelming.

“It’s really cool being around so many people with diverse interests,” she said. “There are so many amazing professors and faculty members, and there are a lot of really cool opportunities.”

Armstrong plans to add economics as a double major and is also looking forward to studying abroad, though she hasn’t decided where yet. Further in the future, she hopes to attend law school and to pursue a career in government or the nonprofit sector.

Though she sheepishly admits she also applied to the University of Arizona, Armstrong feels confident with her final choice of ASU.

“I think that the decision I made was really right for me; I’m really happy here,” she said.

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU News

(480) 965-9657