Water is critical for growing food and generating power. This study deals with two globally important agricultural systems, the Heihe River Basin in China and the Central Valley of California, USA, that exemplify the complexities of large scale water-energy systems. The Heihe and the Central Valley represent billions of dollars in economic productivity and produce billions of kilowatt hours of electricity every year. While the two basins are in many ways similar (water flows from high in the mountains to nourish crops below), there are key differences in their history and management that provides many important information. This project brings together researchers from the US and China to better understand tradeoffs between water and energy supply in these complex agricultural systems. Advantage is taken of computer simulations, datasets and research from US and Chinese teams in their local basins and collaborate to advance our shared understanding of these basins. The state of the art computer simulation platforms developed and applied here are designed to capture connections between humans and natural systems not possible with previous modeling approaches. This project also seeks to educate the next generation of water users, planners and scientists on groundwater sustainability by developing K-12 education materials for both the US and China that will be piloted in real classrooms in both countries. This project will help us better understand weaknesses in managed food-water-energy systems like the Heihe and Central Valley to strengthen them moving forward.

Water connects food production, energy demand and energy production in irrigated agricultural systems. Intensively managed basins routinely have surface water irrigation, groundwater irrigation and hydropower production operating in tandem. While there have been many operational studies of large scale irrigated systems, the majority of tools applied to these problems focus on the human systems and simplify the natural hydrology. This study bridges this gap developing novel tools that can simulate FEW interactions in complex human and natural systems. In this project leverage of international advances in physically based integrated numerical modeling is accomplished by bringing together two teams of modelers from the US and China. The goal is to explore the tradeoffs between agricultural water supply, hydropower production and environmental degradation in two globally important agricultural systems: the Central Valley of California (USA) and the Heihe River basin in China. Specifically, exploring (1) how the vulnerabilities of food and energy systems differ, (2) where conflicting interests can lead to system inefficiency and environmental degradation, and (3) the advantages of applying integrated hydrologic models to these human systems. The project also seeks to educate the next generation of water users, planners and scientists on groundwater sustainability. Project outputs will be used to develop K-12 education materials for both the US and China that will be piloted in real classrooms.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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Laura Lautz
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Princeton University
United States
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