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Grant aimed at solving agricultural water issues through community engagement

Senior Lecturer Lara Fowler is part of a multi-institution research team awarded a planned four-year, $5 million research grant to ensure adequate supplies of good-quality water both for and from agriculture.
Water reservoir

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A group of institutions led by Penn State has received nearly $2.2 million for the first year of a planned four-year, $5 million project aimed at developing a model for engaging communities and stakeholders to ensure adequate supplies of good-quality water both for and from agriculture. Partners include the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, Arizona State University and the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

Lara Fowler, senior lecturer at Penn State Law and assistant director for outreach and engagement at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, serves on the project’s management team.

The project, funded by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will enable researchers to promote sustainable water for agriculture by developing a proven, flexible and transferable model of stakeholder engagement that transforms the way scientists, the Cooperative Extension System, agency officials and engagement specialists approach critical water-availability issues.

"This project will develop and implement an engagement model that works across differing hydrological and agricultural contexts in the United States," said lead researcher Kathryn Brasier, associate professor of rural sociology, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State. "The model will be tested in three case study locations -- in Arizona, Nebraska and Pennsylvania -- that represent a range of biophysical and social contexts yet share long-standing and emerging water availability concerns related to water for agriculture."

Water availability -- both in terms of adequate quantity and quality -- for agriculture and from agriculture is a pressing issue in the United States and beyond. While water for agriculture is necessary for crop and animal production and processing, agriculture's use of water is under pressure given competing demands, such as residential and municipal consumption, instream flows, and industrial and energy production.

Researchers say that while water quality due to urban runoff or mining can limit water available for agriculture, agriculture in turn is under pressure because of its own impact on water quality. Toxic algae blooms have been traced in part to agricultural runoff in places as diverse as Florida, Lake Erie and China. Pennsylvania agriculture faces demands to address its contribution to excess nutrients that affect multiple regions, including the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as tributaries to the Ohio and Mississippi River systems.

The researchers contend that many water-availability projects focus on a biophysical issue and propose an engineering or technological fix. Significant public funds have been used to incentivize the voluntary adoption of best management practices, yet implementation of these technical solutions and BMPs fall far short of water quality and quantity goals in many regions.

"Current approaches are insufficient and ignore the complex web of social, economic, cultural, institutional, legal and biophysical conditions that influence individual landowners' and water resource managers' choices and behaviors," Brasier said.

She explained that the project will examine basic questions about how engagement influences individual and collective capacity to address water-availability challenges, landscape-management behaviors and, ultimately, water quality and quantity outcomes. Changes attributed to the engagement efforts will be assessed at the individual, collective and institutional levels.

Brasier said biophysical impacts will be assessed by examining practice implementation and changes in water quantity and quality using simulations and field experiments. The project team also will consult with international partners in Israel and Australia, two countries that have been severely challenged by water issues, to learn from those countries' ongoing engagement and assessment work.

The project will analyze two study areas in Pennsylvania: one in central Pennsylvania in the Susquehanna watershed, and one in the "triple divide" area in the northern part of the state near the headwaters of the Susquehanna, Genesee and Allegheny rivers. Communities in both locations are interested in ensuring viable farms and local economies while addressing the potential impacts from farming, forestry, and energy and mineral extraction.

"The active participation of all stakeholders -- local agricultural producers and decision-makers, institutional actors, social and biophysical scientists, outreach and education specialists -- is required to transform how water challenges are understood and addressed," Brasier said. "The ultimate goal is to create a transferable model of stakeholder engagement that can be used in any area facing critical questions related to water for and from agriculture."

Besides Brasier and Fowler, the project's management team includes Mark Burbach, environmental scientist, University of Nebraska; Jack Watson, professor of soil physics and biogeochemistry, Penn State; and Clinton Williams, lead research soil scientist, USDA-ARS Arid Land Agricultural Research Center, Maricopa, Arizona. In addition to participating institutions, the University of Maine will provide external review of the project.

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