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WSU part of $15 million project to build community resilience in West

The Washington state town of Wenatchee with mountains in the distance
Photo by Thayne Tuason

With the Inland Mountain West facing extended droughts, frequent wildfires, and population growth, Washington State University researchers are joining a new $15 million National Science Foundation-funded project to help communities deal with these complex problems.

The five-year effort, called the Transformation Network, takes a “convergent science” approach, meaning it brings an array of knowledge, theories, data, and methods to bear on particularly difficult challenges. The Network is led by University of New Mexico and includes seven other universities and more than 50 organizations.

The network partners will combine scientific research and work with communities, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and Tribes to share knowledge gained from different regions – the upper Rio Grande/San Juan river watersheds, Colorado Front Range corridor, and inland Pacific Northwest – all of which face similar issues.

“The whole idea of this project is to use convergent science to help communities integrate knowledge from different fields, disciplines, and ways of thinking about the environment to help find more sustainable solutions,” said Julie Padowski, who is leading WSU’s portion of the work. “We envision generating some meaningful science that can help communities who are struggling with climate change to find real solutions that fit at the local and regional scale.”

In the Inland Northwest, WSU researchers will focus on three different dimensions of community resilience, Padowski said: one that deals with “headwaters systems,” which are communities such as the Yakima Basin, that are reliant on the mountain snow pack for water, a supply that is dwindling because of climate change. A second focus will look at food-energy-water systems, addressing the often-conflicting demands for water for use in agriculture, fishing, and power generation. The third area will work with the various agencies, organizations, and community leaders to address policies affecting these issues.

Padowski, an associate professor of environmental science with the State of Washington Water Research Center, is also assistant director for WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach or CEREO, and this project will draw on the interdisciplinary strengths of that center. Other WSU researchers include Jan Boll, interim director of CEREO; Brad Gaolach and Patricia Townsend of WSU Metropolitan Center for Applied Research and Extension; and Georgine Yorgey and Sonia Hall from WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The Transformation Network, which starts work on Sept. 15, is part of $30 million in funding that the NSF announced last week to create two new research networks to understand and design innovative and equitable solutions that build community resilience.

The impacts of climate change have affected the western United States especially hard in recent years, said Mark Stone, a University of New Mexico professor who is leading the Transformation Network. Much of the area has been stressed by rapid urban population growth while also dealing with catastrophic wildfires and drought. The Network’s research will focus on both Tribal and rural communities to understand how systemic inequities have compounded climate change impacts.

“We want the Network to be a resource for the Intermountain West in developing innovative and equitable solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change. To achieve our goal, we must also work towards racial and environmental justice,” Stone said.

Network projects will utilize a novel framework for what is known as “guided transformation,” which incorporates diverse perspectives, including Indigenous and place-based knowledge as well as valuing community and environmental well-being.

During the project, the Network has several goals:

  • Improving understanding of interlinked urban and rural systems feedbacks, processes and actors;
  • Creating a diverse and engaged network of Intermountain West partners to advance understanding of community needs and explore sustainable solutions;
  • Training a new cohort of scientists and leaders with expertise in convergent, complex systems thinking; and
  • Documenting and sharing the processes for developing sustainable urban and rural systems through a guided transformation framework.

The network will also include an extensive educational outreach component, funded by the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. This will translate into a variety of research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students as well as activities focusing on attracting K-12 students into STEM disciplines.

In addition to WSU and UNM, the Network includes five other universities: Colorado State University, the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Utah State University, New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University.

The project is being co-funded by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program.

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