University water experts meet with Napolitano today
Water experts from Arizona's three universities will meet with Gov. Janet Napolitano today to discuss how university resources can combat issues of Arizona's declining water supply, although researchers say they lack state support necessary to do their work.
Napolitano has called on the UA, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University to form a "virtual water university," to fight what she calls the state's water crisis.
The proposal, announced in November, received overwhelming support from Arizona leaders last month, but the plan still needs to overcome financial and logistical hurdles, including state funding and leadership questions, water experts say.
Napolitano said the "virtual university," expected to be completed in 2006, would collaborate the work of water researchers at the three universities to act as a state "think tank" to develop a long-term plan to fight declining water tables and increasing demands. The project would not be an actual university, but a central conglomerate of ideas and research in Arizona.
"The state is capitalizing on all of the talent we have," said Eugene Sander, vice provost and dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "They are using the universities as a state resource to help policy makers make wise decisions on how we ought to handle things like the drought."
Arizona's finite water supply coupled with rising use makes the issue a high-priority for the state's future, said Michael Bradley, an associate professor in hydrology and water resources who specializes in water resources administration.
However, Jim Shuttleworth, director of Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas at the UA, said one issue hindering the project is the funding to move forward.
"The management and coordination of this new enterprise will obviously take some level of funding," Shuttleworth said. "But providing the research, the management tools, education and technology Arizona needs to become a premier water sustainability state will take a great deal more."
At today's meeting, Napolitano and university representatives will discuss funding, specific water research at each university and draft the structural framework of the project.
Lack of funding stalls 'Water University'
Last semester, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a $12 million water decision package between the three universities as part of their 2006 budget requests to be sent to the Legislature. The funding would strengthen the existing water programs at the state universities, with $10 million going to the UA and $1 million going to ASU and NAU.
However, Napolitano's fiscal year 2006-2007 executive budget proposal, released Friday, allocates $1.5 million for water research at the three state universities, with a half million going to each university.
Thomas Maddock, head of the department of hydrology and water resources, said although the insufficient figure does not come as a surprise, the lack of funding will make it difficult to manage a water university.
"It's going to be tough operating on a shoestring budget, particularly when you are starting from scratch," Maddock said.
William Auberle, director of engineering programs at NAU and NAU representative on the governor's drought task force, said if the lower figure is approved by the state Legislature, the water university will continue to develop, but at a slower pace.
"It has been the intent from the outset to use state resources for development and leveraging external funds," Auberle said in an
e-mail. "Our ability to commit and attract resources will affect the pace and scope of its development."
James Buizer, director of suitability issues at ASU and special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow, said the proposed $1.5 million funding from the governor means the universities must carefully spend their budget.
"NAU and ASU suffered, but not as badly as UA did," Buizer said. "But the governor's request, if approved, will really do a good job of kick-starting the virtual water university."
Although initial funds could start the water university, Maddock said the state needs to allocate more money to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, an agency which Maddock said is in shambles.
"That agency, if it had proper funding, could do the granting for us," Maddock said. "Right now, there really isn't any mechanism in the state to focus on water."
Cutting-edge water research
Nestled between trees along North Campus Drive is the Harshbarger building, home to four floors of water research labs ranging from the ultra-purification of water-to-water conservation to treatment technologies.
Sander, who represents the UA at the governor's drought task force meetings, said particularly at the UA, strong water research is embedded in every college on campus, ranging from the College of Engineering and Mines to the James E. Rogers College of Law to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In addition, the UA Water Sustainability Program contains four water research centers.
The universities will play a critical role in the future of Arizona's water sustainability, said Regent Ernest Calderon, because they offer two important factors: expertise and objectivity.
"There are so many invested interests in the water issues that we really need an objective perspective and the universities can provide that," Calderon said.
According to Napolitano's proposal, the UA will focus on water sustainability, quality, policy and water in high technology manufacturing; ASU will concentrate on improving the state's climate and drought models; NAU will study the state's rapid growth and the demand for water supply as it relates to Northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau.
SHARA, one of four centers in WSP, conducts river basin-focused research in arid regions and conveys the data to improve water management and policy in Arizona, said Shuttleworth, a professor of hydrology and water resources.
Bradley said he does comparative studies of water rights systems in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Knowing how groundwater rights are dealt with in a place like Southern California is beneficial to lawmakers in Arizona, Bradley said.
The research is not just limited to faculty members. Graduate and undergraduate students also participate in water research labs across campus.
Gina Chorover, a graduate student in landscape architecture, said she is focusing on sustainable design and planning practices that can minimize the detrimental impact of population growth in certain ecosystems, specifically in the developing Rincon Valley.
"Many of the graduate students in landscape architecture deal with water issues either directly or indirectly through the use of low-water use plants in their designs, water harvesting and efficient irrigation technologies," Chorover said.
Of course, running a research lab is not cheap.
Maddock said the water labs see very little money from the state. Instead, most are supported by federal grants, such as the National Science Foundation.
The hydrology department pulls in $4 million to $5 million per year in research grants, but Maddock added funding students to work in labs costs about $25,000 to $30,000 per student each year.
Collaboration, not competition
Regent Robert Bulla said with the universities working together, access to water information and research will be more readily available. This teamwork will produce more alternatives and solutions to the water crisis rather than the universities competing and shielding information, Bulla said.
However, a remaining concern is who will direct the water conglomerate and where the main office will be located.
Although Buizer said he does not expect a director to be appointed at today's meeting, he hopes the universities can reach a consensus regarding the project's structural framework.
Sander said he is unsure of which university the director will be from, but said the UA has about 300 water specialists - more than any other state university.
However, for the unifying effort to advance, the director must effectively represent the interest of the state and its three universities, said Auberle.
"It makes no sense to have the water university director attached directly to any of the three universities," Auberle said in an e-mail.
Regent Fred Boice said because the UA has a top hydrology department and first-rate water research centers, it would make sense for the UA to have a leading role in the virtual water university, but "very much in cooperation" with the other state universities.
The UA's hydrology and water resources department has been ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for the last six years. In the past, UA President Peter Likins has called the department the best in the world.
Even though about 70 percent of water experts in Arizona are at the UA, Shuttleworth said each university has something to offer to the project.
The state agencies requiring the most assistance from the academic community are in Phoenix, with Arizona's renewable water resource located in the north near NAU, Shuttleworth said.
"Trying to work together in this way for the first time has provided a new challenge and opportunity to get to know each other," Shuttleworth said. "The three Arizona universities have come together quickly and effectively in response to the governor's initiative."