The Washington State Department of Ecology has awarded a $1.6 million grant to Washington State University researchers to protect, preserve and enhance Columbia River water resources.

Jennifer Adam, Berry Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and project lead, said the goal of this project is to understand what water availability and scarcity look like in the future and to produce information that the Washington State legislature can use to make decisions about state funding for water resource projects.

“This project not only produces new scientific knowledge about how the Columbia River is changing, it is also directly supporting policy decisions,” Adam said.

As part of its mandate from the state legislature to preserve the Columbia River, the Department of Ecology has partnered with WSU for the long-term water supply and demand forecasts since 2006.

“This year, the project is focused on diminishing groundwater supplies, how cropping systems play a role in determining water availability for other users, and a better assessment of the impacts of water shortages”, Adam said.

“When we’re looking at what water is going to look like in 20 years, we can’t measure it because we don’t have a time machine,” Adam said. “So, instead, we use computational models.”

Through simulations of Columbia River Basin water use that include factors like cropping systems, population, and municipal water use, the team can determine the best ways to conserve water as the area adapts to climate change.

“Cropping systems are really sophisticated in terms of how these plants adapt to climate change,” she said.

For farmers, one potentially positive effect of climate change and warmer temperatures is a longer growing season.  Plants also show much more activity and mature faster in warmer climates.

However, a warmer climate would allow area farmers to practice double cropping, or planting two crops during a single season, which could put additional stress on water supplies, especially at the end of the season.

“On one hand, it’s good for the agricultural industry because they possibly are more profitable,” she said. “On the other hand, it may reduce water availability for other uses in the late summer season, which is the season that is projected to be impacted the most by climate change.”

The project is intended to help policy makers and farmers better plan for the future and ensure adequate supplies for the most number of people.

“It’s not just about climate change,” she said. “It’s about decisions that people make.”