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Water Sustainability
Water Sustainability

We are by the force of our increasing population changing the planet we live on.

As we race toward a population of 9.6 billion by 2050, the landscapes we inhabit and cultivate are transforming. The climate is warming, scientists agree, due to the impacts of anthropogenic actions. The resources we rely on, such as usable, accessible water, may soon be in short supply at a time when demand is skyrocketing. 

The likelihood of future water scarcities and other disruptions in ecosystem services in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere present an unprecedented challenge: how to circumvent shortages and sustain ecosystem services?

In the School of the Environment at PSU, a consortium of faculty members with expertise in the physical and social sciences, education, management, engineering, business and urban planning, along with students, partners from local, state, federal, and international agencies are working to answer such challenges by promoting and enhancing environmental research and education regionally and beyond.

Dr. Heejun Chang, Professor of Geography, is a faculty member in the School of the Environment. His research focus is water. Dr. Chang is a champion of an integrated regional approach to understanding major changes in water quantity and quality. His methods embrace a multitude of scientific disciplines and collaborators in order to examine the complex interactions of climate change, changes in land use, and water management.

As a member of UNESCO’s Hydrology, Environment, Life and Policy (HELP) Program, Dr. Chang collaborates with scientists, government agencies and policy makers across the states and around the globe to improve the links between hydrology and the needs of society. Here in the Northwest, Dr. Chang leads several inter-disciplinary studies producing findings and developing tools to inform agencies such as the Portland Water Bureau, Metro, the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. EPA of the changing state of hydrologic systems. He has also served as co-PI on projects that have received nearly $4.5 million in funding from the NSF.

In the Columbia River Basin, the great watershed of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Chang is leading a collation of community partners and faculty members from departments across the university on the Columbia River Basin Vulnerability Assessment Project. The project’s goal is to engage the collation in a series of activities that will identify knowledge and information gaps and develop an integrated information system to support sustainable river basin management here and in other river basins around the country.

SESAME, the Spatial Ecosystem Services Analysis, Modeling, and Evaluation project is a multi-year, inter-disciplinary study based in the northwestern Willamette Valley and funded by the NSF. Under SESAME, Dr. Chang has brought together partners: Clean Water Services, Willamette Partnership, Earth Economics, and the Institute of Natural Resources along with researchers from PSU, OSU, Bowdoin College and other organizations. Together, their aim to improve tools officials and resource managers use to estimate the value of ecosystems facing changes in land use and climate. These estimations provide important information to public and private sector individuals and organizations involved in land development and conservations efforts.

Here in Portland, Dr. Chang is a researcher on NOAA’s Sectorial Application Research Program (SARP) where a team comprised of members from Phoenix, Arizona and Portland, Oregon are developing regional strategies in each city for adapting to the uncertainties of climate change. They have facilitated dialogues between water resource managers and land use planners in the Portland metro area through workshops.

“The focus of all of this research,” Dr. Chang said from his office at PSU, “is in water resource impacts in terms of supply, quality, and demand. There has been a lot of focus on climate change, but climate change isn’t the only factor involved. The land is changing: land conversion, urban development, population growth. But there are also sociological factors, like demographics and behavior characteristics.  Water systems are coupled to natural and human system and we need to incorporate these factors into our studies as well.”

According to Dr. Chang, making sure there is enough water to meet demand for all in a future full of uncertainties is a complex problem, but there are solutions.

Dr. Chang believes that to achieve the best possible outcomes for a future where changes in climate, land use and population are going to affect the quality and supply of available water, stakeholders all need to be incorporated from the beginning in a process he calls integrated water resources management. This will require nothing short of the coming together of experts from a broad range of fields, from the physical to the social sciences, economics to education, civic leaders, resource managers, non-profit organizations, researchers, students and the general public. Dr. Chang and his colleagues in the School of the Environment and elsewhere are at the forefront of building such a network of stakeholders. With their efforts and the efforts of others striving to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we may soon have the framework to adapt to our changing world and meet the needs of society and environment.

The Grand Coulee Dam, Washington State