An interdisciplinary team from ASU is collaborating to create a set of tools to help decision makers sustainably address the future of food, energy and water system policy in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond.

ASU team uses interdisciplinary approach to examine society's food, energy, water challenges

By

Monique Clement

Here in the desert, water is a big concern. For the average person living in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the prospect of future water shortages makes us think about fixing that dripping faucet, buying high-efficiency washing machines and xeriscaping our green lawns — things we can do as individuals to conserve water.

But to really understand our future as desert dwellers and create the appropriate policies for future generations, it’s necessary to look how water affects and is affected by other crucial resources we depend on: food and energy.

Five Arizona State University faculty members from a range of disciplines recently received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation award. As part of the NSF’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program, the team conducts research to build decision support tools that look at the interdependence of these systems and help develop sustainable policies for the future.

A complex nexus

Historically, policies for agriculture, energy and water have been made in isolation of one another. In reality, these systems are all interconnected. This interplay is called the food-energy-water nexus.

For example, Phoenix is the fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, and every resident needs water for drinking and other daily uses. Additionally, water is used to irrigate crops, generate energy and cool power plants. When water levels decrease, issues arise not only for consumers, but also in agricultural and energy sectors.

Around the world, as demands on each sector of the nexus continue to grow, the siloed approach to policies involving limited natural resources impedes a sustainable future. Successful policy in all sectors takes into account the links, synergies and conflicts between them through anticipatory governance, or using data and models to predict how variations will affect our world and how we can proactively plan for the consequences through policy.

“We’re looking at where anything in this system could break and how that propagates to other parts of the system,” said Ross Maciejewski, computer science assistant professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Evaluating how these systems interact can be difficult, as each individual sector is highly complex. Together, their behavior becomes even more complex to predict.

“As you look further into the future, these problems become significantly more challenging,” said Hessam Sarjoughian, computer science associate professor and co-director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Modeling and Simulation. “Like a hurricane, it’s relatively easy to predict a few hours before one hits a city, but predicting this event three days in advance is very different. Similarly, knowing what the future will be in 10 to 20 years at the nexus of food, energy and water becomes exponentially more complex. Different kinds of interaction amongst food, energy and water parts are crucial to be correctly modeled, simulated and visualized at scale.

The NSF INFEWS program has assembled interdisciplinary teams to answer the call to this grand challenge. This $50 million program looks to study the interconnections and interdependencies of the food-energy-water nexus, bringing scientific and engineering experts from a wide range of fields together to develop innovative scientific and engineering pathways to produce new knowledge, techniques and a workforce capable of managing them.

flow chart
Food, energy and water systems are interconnected and are affected by climate, population, policies and the economy. Policy enacted in one area of this nexus can have unforeseen consequences in another.

 

Interdisciplinary teams solve wide-ranging problems

The team, led by principal investigator Maciejewski, includes co-principal investigators Sarjoughian, Giuseppe Mascaro, assistant professor from the Fulton Schools; Dave White, professor in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development and director of the ASU Decision Center for a Desert Cityand Rimjhim Aggarwal, associate professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

Each team member brings his or her own area of expertise to define, analyze and visualize problems within the food-energy-water nexus.

“The areas are so broad you can’t just be an expert in one discipline,” Maciejewski said. “So we rely on others to bring their expertise.”

Maciejewski is an expert on data visualization, Sarjoughian in heterogeneous modeling methods, Mascaro in hydrology and water resource engineering, White in environmental policy and stakeholder engagement, and Aggarwal in economics and sustainable food systems.

Together they have a more complete understanding of the nexus and how individual sectors interact.

Modelers who are experts on a given domain, such as Mascaro in hydrology and Aggarwal in food systems, collaborate to analyze individual food, energy and water data models as well as their interactions — a difficult task due to the vast differences of how these systems behave and react to changes. With the help of these experts, computer scientists Maciejewski and Sarjoughian create visualization tools that display the model simulation data in a way that is accessible to individuals outside their domain of expertise.

“The ultimate societal objective of our food-energy-water nexus activities is to develop basic knowledge that will transform the planning, management and operation of interrelated food, energy and water systems to achieve long-term sustainability and security,” White said.

This requires White to facilitate additional collaboration with stakeholders in social, economic and political processes who will provide the necessary insight to ensure models are relevant and seen as legitimate by policymakers.

By creating a way for stakeholders to understand the feedback between the food-energy-water nexus biophysical systems and related economic systems, policies can avoid significant undesirable and unintended consequences, Aggarwal said.

Building on past collaboration

This isn’t the first time members of the team have collaborated. As part of ASU’s Global Security Initiative, Maciejewski and Mascaro have previously worked together with White to address potential conflicts in Africa due to climate change. White has also spent more than a decade on social science research in the Phoenix metro area with the Decision Center for a Desert City, and he has worked with Aggarwal on many water, agricultural and environmental sustainability research projects.

Their experiences together set them up for success for this year’s INFEWS project proposal.

When Maciejewski saw the project had a data visualization track he decided to collaborate with his former partners again to look at the food-energy-water nexus specifically in the Phoenix metropolitan area. They’re looking for potential failures in the local nexus system, and how to show the consequences those failures to local decision makers.

An example that informed the team's focus is the Navajo Generating Station on the northern edge of Arizona. Though outside the group’s area of study, changes to the coal-fired plant can send effects cascading down to the Phoenix metropolitan area. The plant is the primary source of energy for pumps that deliver Central Arizona Project canal water to the region. It’s also one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation, and has come under scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers in the Phoenix area are very concerned about environmental regulations designed to control emissions at the plant as they would likely increase their CAP water delivery costs. Aggarwal discovered in her previous research that as CAP water becomes more expensive, farmers in the Phoenix region with groundwater rights are likely to switch to groundwater pumping, increasing energy demand further and putting already shrinking groundwater resources at greater risk.

“This is a case where an enhanced understanding of the nexus could help us design better strategies and policies for the transition to sustainability,” Aggarwal said.

Arizona solutions to global solutions

Maciejewski’s team isn’t the only team out of Arizona to be selected for this NSF project. Led out of Northern Arizona University, a second Arizona team that includes four ASU faculty as project co-principal investigators is taking a data fusion approach to model and map food-energy-water nexus systems.

“It’s unusual [for a single university to be part of] two grants in this project at this level of funding,” Sarjoughian said.

ASU’s emphasis on interdisciplinary teams and research could be the driving factor behind its success in the NSF INFEWS project.

“ASU is well situated for these opportunities to work on these complex problems because we’ve worked to foster these collaborations and build these teams,” Maciejewski said.

Along with the university’s focus on interdisciplinary research, ASU is seen as a leader in researching areas affected by climate and water.

The university recently hosted United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who talked about food security in the face of climate change. He said the Obama administration has charged universities with doing more research on climate and water issues and specific agricultural solutions to those problems, and ASU’s School of Sustainability is already looking at every aspect of climate change and exploring how to get different stakeholders — farmers, city planners, water and energy utility managers and citizens — to work jointly on finding solutions. By providing a better understanding of the nexus and the tools to visualize and assess various future scenarios, this project could pave the way for meaningful and impactful dialogue among these stakeholders.

The state of Arizona is uniquely positioned to help solve food-energy-water nexus sustainability challenges. The desert state’s experiences may soon become the reality in more places globally as the natural and built worlds grow and change.

“Phoenix already has problems others are expected to face, so if we can find the solutions here we can apply them elsewhere,” Maciejewski said. “We’ve done a good job of solving a lot of these problems, like population growth and land use change, so we’re a good example of how to take on sustainability solutions, and a lot of that has been helped by ASU.”

Nurturing a new crop of interdisciplinary experts

As the nexus is a relatively recent research domain, the ASU team also faces the challenge of introducing a new generation of engineering students to the new territory.

When searching for graduate students and postdoctoral researcher to complete their research team, Mascaro noted that students were already working on water or energy or food, but not many worked on a combination of these sectors. They hope to find an innovative group of students to change that.

“We want to make this a five-year interdisciplinary research project for our students to build their doctoral topics on,” Maciejewski said. “We want to graduate world experts on the food-energy-water nexus.”

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