Sustainable Water Management Research Vision

Water is the master variable or defining element of the earth’s natural systems. Hydrologic dynamics control crop production, nutrient dynamics, carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the distribution of native and non-native species, pests and disease. Land and water management also influence the integrity of regional water resources. Understanding how ground- and surface-water interactions affect soil conditions is essential to managing human impacts under changing climate conditions.

Major Factors Impacting Sustainable Water Management

The agricultural and watershed restoration communities arguably underestimate the impacts of extensive hydrologic alterations to a suite of ecosystem functions. For example, management techniques prescribed to improve soil health focus on top-down field practices (e.g., crop rotations, tillage, grazing), despite that soil moisture primarily influences the underlying biogeochemical processes (e.g., microbial respiration and decomposition) and water table depth primarily controls soil moisture.

Indeed, extensive hydrologic alterations have redistributed water supplies and shifted hydrochemical gradients, thus reducing soil and plant biota resiliency, undermining natural filter functions and impairing regional water quality. Irrigation largely accounts for 80 percent of water use in the U.S., but artificial drainage also increasingly contributes to degraded water supplies. The estimated cumulative loss of soil water is comparable to that of the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer. As a result, in arid regions, river systems no longer reach their oceanic outflows and critical water shortages threaten agriculture and fisheries.  In humid regions, stream network lengths have increased by thousands of kilometers, more than doubling the length of pre-settlement river systems, resulting in higher storm flows, exacerbated flooding and impaired regional water quality inducing harmful algal blooms.  Across all regions, we have lost more than 50 percent of the wetlands that once provided natural filter functions and watershed residence times have decreased from hundreds of years to less than five. The success of regenerative agriculture and watershed restoration hinges on better characterizing these hydrologic impacts and advancing sustainable water management.

Research Objectives

Despite the growing appreciation for water as a master variable, research in field hydrology continues to decline and modeling tools provide inadequate guidance to growers and watershed managers.  Too often, monitoring, modeling and outreach efforts remain siloed, creating missed opportunities to refine our understanding of system behavior and improve decision-support. To address these critical research gaps, FFAR created our Challenge Area in Sustainable Water Management.

Priority Research Areas

Have we adequately identified threats to our water supplies and set the right management targets?

Agricultural impacts on water quality focus mostly on excess nutrients and sediments. However, other constituents or parameters of concern related to land and water management may emerge as more critical threats to regional water supplies. Research is essential to identifying these threats and characterizing risk.

How can we optimize practice designs?

Many studies have contributed significantly to advanced engineering and integration of in-field, edge-of-field and edge-of-stream agricultural practices.  Historically, however, management recommendations have focused on costs and yields related to average field conditions. In addition to novel engineering designs, collaborative research is needed to tease out underlying drivers affecting practice performance and quantify outcomes related to a broader range of stakeholder concerns.

How can we improve trade-off analyses and decision support?

There is increasing evidence that the Pareto principle applies in agriculture: roughly 80 percent of the threats to our water supplies come from 20 percent of our working lands. Importantly, these high-impact areas may shift with climate change. Thus, models are essential to identifying the small portion of land areas that have a disproportionate impact on regional water resources or have an exceptional capacity to provide a range of ecosystem services affected by water management. Further, fully integrated biophysical, socio-economic models can transform stakeholder decision-support by providing a more holistic basis for assessing cost-effectiveness related to farm operations.

How can we engage farmers and emplace enough practices to achieve our goal?

The recent U.S. Agricultural Census indicates that farmers have applied best management practices to less than five percent of our agricultural lands. Such limited adoption poses a significant risk to our achieving our water security goal. There is a critical need to understand why farmers have not adopted these advanced recommendations and develop more effective incentive programs accordingly.

Are we achieving the expected outcomes?

Advances in continuous monitoring equipment and remote sensing technology present exciting opportunities to characterize current field conditions. More importantly, however, these technologies present exceptional opportunities to improve our decision-support tools’ accuracy and precision if used as part of a research program purposely designed to support model development. Model-based research is essential to improving credibility with stakeholders, thus improving resource management.

Connections to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 global goals to enhance peace and prosperity, eradicate poverty and protect the planet. Through this Challenge Area, we create multi-stakeholder partnerships to address threats to freshwater while enhancing agricultural production and support water resource management through pioneering scientific research. Our work supports SDG 2, Zero Hunger; SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation; SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; and SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals.

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