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Researchers tap into how we might better manage water

A study well in the community of Mombaça, Ceará.
A study well in the community of Mombaça, Ceará. Photo by Alicia Cooperman.

On a planet with increasingly limited resources, people will need to work together to monitor and manage them.

A new Washington State University-led study found some of the challenges that get in the way of community monitoring of one important resource, groundwater. The study, which included researchers from Texas A & M University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, provides important lessons for understanding how to better monitor and manage groundwater and the key factors that impact community monitoring of common resources.

The study is part of a group of six coordinated field experiments featured in a special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Globally, groundwater is increasingly under stress and in decline, but very few places are actually monitoring it, and even fewer places are managing it to support sustainability,” said Sasha McLarty, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who led the project. “Our study was an example of how to develop a community monitoring program with low overhead in a way that could be widely implementable at the community scale. It provides an important first step in understanding how to start these low overhead monitoring projects.”

The few examples of successful groundwater monitoring efforts have been large-scale efforts supported by non-governmental organizations and requiring significant investment over many years. The level of time and resources to replicate these examples is often infeasible on a large and wide scale, McLarty said. While the study focused on a drought-prone area of Northeast Brazil, it also has relevance in the Pacific Northwest, where Governor Jay Inslee recently declared a drought emergency that could open up emergency use of groundwater resources.

“Our funds to track these resources at the government level are declining, which can increase the importance of community efforts,” McLarty said.

As part of the project, the researchers developed a local, low-cost community monitoring program. McLarty and a group of engineering students built 120 inexpensive groundwater measuring tools that they shared with residents in Ceará, Brazil. The cost of each was under $20, built solely from components that can be purchased at any hardware store, in the US or Brazil. In each community, the researchers held participatory training workshops to learn about community water systems, show community members how to use the devices, and discuss locally-appropriate groundwater sustainability and water management policies.

The researchers found that the amount of coordination required, the availability of alternative water sources, the accessibility of the community wells, and the variability in water supplies were some key factors in determining if a community monitoring program was initiated and maintained.

Alicia Cooperman testing a WSU-made groundwater monitoring device in one of the study wells.

While low uptake of the community monitoring intervention contributed to null findings, the researchers didn’t view their null findings as a failed intervention. Instead, they took a novel approach to explore why the uptake was low. They learned valuable lessons, especially because there are so few examples of this type of community monitoring, McLarty said.

“It helped us narrow down how to set up a program like this in the future,” she said. “What are the specific things that we should pay attention to, and if you can only do three things to set up a monitoring program, what do you need to prioritize? If we wait for the success, then that means so many more projects are going to fail that didn’t need do.”

Communities need to know why they’re doing this work and have the tools and training to do it, and they need to perceive it as a big enough benefit. However, even with those factors and a desire to monitor there can be important barriers that may limit their ability to do so, she said.

“What can we do that’s feasible for communities instead of waiting for these big influxes of international funds to come in?” she added. “How can we do that more locally, which is really more sustainable in the long-term.”

The process also provided valuable lessons for scientists and researchers starting out their careers, she said.

“We always tell ourselves that for every one success, there are 10 failures in research, but if we don’t acknowledge those failures, then the successes become fewer and far between,” she said. “The whole premise behind research is that you’re exploring and trying to figure out how things work – not that it will work the first time.”

The work was funded by U.K. Department for International Development and administered by the Evidence in Governance and Politics Metaketa III. Co-authors on the study included Alicia Cooperman from Texas A & M and Brigitte Seim from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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