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Columbia Water Center Year in Review

water center iconThe Columbia Water Center (CWC) is a leader in applying the science of water and climate to solve real world problems. Our mission is to creatively tackle these water challenges in a rapidly changing world where water and climate interact with food, energy, ecosystems and urbanization. Combining the rigor of scientific research with the impact of effective policy, we aim to design reliable, sustainable models of water management and development that can be implemented on local, regional and global levels. In collaboration with other Earth Institute units and external partners, the CWC is leading intellectual inquiry into the assessment, understanding and resolution of the global crisis of freshwater scarcity. With current events in mind, this past year we worked with our partners to make progress on several key projects:

America’s Water

As part of the America’s Water Initiative, supported by the National Science Foundation, we have been working on understanding the past and assessing the future of Water-Energy-Food outcomes for the U.S. under climate variability. In 2017, we explored the human response to climate and how our actions impact on groundwater, reservoir management, and water risk, as well as detecting potential water quality issues. We advanced the development of our integrated model, AWASH, aimed at understanding how water is used across the country, informing the future of water in the U.S., and the developments needed to secure water supplies to support the economy.

A worker walks down the damaged roadway near the Oroville Dam emergency spillway. Photo: Brian Baer/ California Department of Water Resources

Residents of Oroville, California, were evacuated after damages to the nation’s tallest dam were discovered on both the main and auxiliary spillways, causing fear that billions of gallons of water would flood the surrounding area. Water Center director Upmanu Lall commented on the situation in a blog post, Oroville Dam Crisis is a Call to Action on U.S. Water Infrastructure; an Op-Ed piece in CNNOroville is the best warning that infrastructure matters; and a piece in Undark MagazineThe Oroville Dam Crisis Could Be the First of Many. The crisis happened to come just days after CWC researchers published a paper in Water Resources Research, The Future Role of Dams in America.

On March 23, 2017, the CWC hosted its fourth annual national workshop on the future of water in America, jointly hosted by the international organization WaterAid and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The event, Americas’ Water: When Global Challenges Hit Home, focused on innovation, new technologies, and disaster preparedness in both North America and South America. This one-day event brought together over 100 business leaders, policy experts, investors and researchers who discussed solutions to these problems, with the hope that these important conversations will lead the two continents to a sustainable water future and provide a model for other countries in the world to follow.

We have been identifying the rapid deterioration of affordable access to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as increasing risks from climate hazards due to aging infrastructure. In the coming years, we will work with partners on strategic projects to address these challenges, especially for poor and disadvantaged U.S. communities.

Water in the Mining Industry

Lake Huacracocha in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Multiple mines and mineral processing plants are located nearby. Treatment of mining waste can cause lakes to reflect light differently, causing the turquoise-blue color. Photo: Lauren Butler/CWC

Our project on financial risks associated with water in the mining industry, sponsored by Norges Bank Investment Management, has developed novel tools and analyses to help quantify water, climate, and environmental risks associated with metal mining. Mining is embroiled in social conflicts due to water-related environmental impacts. Our work using novel data analytics with comprehensive physical, socio-economic, and environmental data sets that we compiled establishes a quantitative basis for the emergence of these social conflicts. We identified the exposure pathways and hydroclimatic triggers, and the vulnerability of mines and mining portfolios to these risks. Novel statistical and financial modeling approaches will translate into robust estimation and disclosure of these risks.

We also identified critical gaps in environmental impact assessment and regulation that lead to cumulative water impacts and propose a new science informed dynamic regulatory strategy that will help reduce these impacts and promote sustainable mining. Our modeling approaches are also relevant for financial assessment of physical climate risks for business, and highlight the high-risk concentration that multi-national portfolios may face from floods and droughts.

Global Floods

Our global floods work continued, with support from the World Bank, to define an operational framework for the rapid assessment of flood response costs. Bangladesh and Thailand served as the initial demonstration cases. The approach included a combination of remote sensing, statistical analysis of rainfall, and economic assessment, identifying a new direction for the introduction of parametric flood insurance products.

Water Challenges for the Energy Industry

Researchers from the CWC worked with Barclays to inform a new report coinciding with World Water Day on March 22, The Water Challenge: Preserving a Global Resource, which explores how cross-industry collaboration can alleviate water stresses and improve water management.


upmanu lall onstage at ceremony
Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, is honored onstage as an AGU fellow.

Last month, director Upmanu Lall was one of 61 scholars to be honored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “AGU Fellows are recognized for their outstanding contributions to scholarship and discovery in the Earth and space sciences,” Eric Davidson, president of AGU, said in a statement in July. “Their work not only expands the realm of human knowledge, but also contributes to the scientific understanding needed for building a sustainable future.”

Looking Forward

From the Oroville dam crisis to accounts of lead contamination in U.S. drinking water, flooding in Southeast Asia, Peru, China, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone, and the devastating impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, today’s water problems are widespread and complex. In 2017, we made progress towards tackling these problems through our cross-sector partnerships, hands-on research, and innovative modeling techniques, and we look forward to building on that progress in the coming year.

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