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UC Merced Leads Innovative Effort to Secure Water for Agriculture and Ecosystems

October 6, 2021
Professor Joshua Viers stands near a canal on the UC Merced campus.
Professor Joshua Viers is the lead project director of the new USDA-funded SWIM initiative to create a resilient water future. Photo by Veronica Adrover.

UC Merced’s largest research grant in its 16-year history aims to improve agricultural and environmental water resilience. The new $10 million collaborative focuses on water banking, trading and improvements in data-driven management practices to arrive at a climate-resilient future in water-scarce regions of the United States.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it is funding the the wide-ranging effort from multiple institutions across three states through its National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative on Sustainable Agricultural Systems. The coalition of researchers is led by UC Merced, joined by experts from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, Utah State University, the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University, the Public Policy Institute of California, Environmental Defense Fund, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwestern Climate Hub.

“There are a lot of challenges in balancing the needs of agriculture and ecosystems, and climate change and drought are only exacerbating difficult decisions about how to sustain water resources,” lead Project Director Professor Joshua Viers said. “But our team of advisors, educators and scientists are eager to enable data-driven decision-making for securing a climate resilient future for our water-stressed regions.”

The partners in the USDA funded collaboration — Securing a Climate Resilient Water Future for Agriculture and Ecosystems through Innovations in Measurement, Management and Markets or SWIM — will focus on developing more robust, data-driven information systems for decision-makers such as land and water managers. SWIM is designed to provide objective measures of supply and demand, and incorporate drought forecasting and climate change trends.

The research and extension team, by working with local decision-makers, will improve the accuracy of measurement in water budgets, evaluate novel management strategies such as on-farm aquifer recharge, and evaluate water trading and markets to improve sustainable surface and groundwater use.

The SWIM project will work across disciplines and stakeholders, integrating research, extension and education in three testbeds with unique water policies and systems: Cache Valley, Utah; Mesilla Valley, New Mexico; and the San Joaquin Valley. All of them grow orchard crops and alfalfa, and all are in a drought. Like California, Utah is experiencing an unprecedented drought, where 99 percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought. And, like California, the physical and cultural geography of New Mexico is extremely diverse. Exploring all innovative avenues of water management is necessary for sustaining a future for agriculture and surrounding communities while balancing ecosystem needs across the west, Viers said.

SWIM’s leadership plans such activities as workshops and field days to actively engage stakeholders, including the extension-grower networks of each state’s university system, as well as land, water and ecosystem managers.

Researchers from UC Merced include Viers, professors John Abatzoglou, Tom Harmon, Teamrat Ghezzehei, Josué Medellín-Azuara and Colleen Naughton, UC ANR Extension Specialist Safeeq Khan, Chelsea Arnold, who oversees the CalTeach program through the School of Natural Sciences, and researchers Leigh Bernacchi, Max Eriksson and Nicholas Santos.

“There are a lot of challenges in balancing the needs of agriculture and ecosystems, and climate change and drought are only exacerbating difficult decisions about how to sustain water resources.” 

Lead Project Director Professor Joshua Viers

In addition to the ongoing activity at the UC ANR Kearney Research and Extension Center, one of the testbeds in California will be the new UC Merced Experimental Smart Farm. Researchers there and in the other two regions will collect soil, water and crop data, track droughts, conduct water accounting and life-cycle assessments, and produce user-focused data and analysis.

“The western United States is experiencing declining surface water and groundwater, adding stress on all aspects of the social-hydrological system,” said co-investigator Sam Fernald, director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University. “The lessons learned in this project will offer a blueprint for addressing future water challenges, not just in the West, but other locations worldwide facing similar water shortage issues.”

The researchers want to answer many pressing questions, such as how much the changing characteristics of multi-year droughts alter people’s willingness to engage in water trading and banking as part of climate resilience efforts; whether drought early warning systems propel water trading; how ecosystem services can be maintained while adapting agricultural water management to anticipated extremes; what are the key drivers and barriers adopting or participating in water markets; and how new data and technology can reduce costs and barriers.

They will also look at how climate change impacts can be mitigated through a rainy-day storage option called managed aquifer recharge or MAR, as well as water trading at multiple scales and land-use planning so that agriculture and the environment can be sustained.

One key component of creating a sustainable future is through educational programming, one of the core activities of the grant. The Climate Adaptation Science Academy will give affiliated graduate students the jump on their careers as leaders in science and engineering by providing training in climate adaptation science, communications and complex systems problem solving.

“Expanding the reach of our program are transformational K-12 educational tools,” Viers said. “Educators and graduate students will develop curricular materials for AgSTEM education pathways reaching from rural, regional middle schools to the teachers serving underrepresented groups.”

The SWIM team plans to develop such tools as games that support computational thinking and decision-making, activities in which students learn about agriculture and careers in smart farming, and hands-on experiential learning.

As associate dean for research in the School of Engineering and the director of the campus's branch of the Center of Information Technology and Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS and the Banatao Institute), Viers discussed the role of UC Merced in providing tangible solutions to pressing societal problems:

“It has been clear for some time that water scarcity is our new reality, and we know we need to do things differently,” he said. “This research award is the largest that USDA makes to universities, and it is clear that they believe UC Merced and our affiliates are the right team with the right ideas to help secure a climate resilient water future.”