Project to improve Great Plains water sustainability

Published on: Aug 29, 2013

An outpouring of research funds is helping a group of Kansas State University researchers study how human activity and climate change affect central Great Plains water systems.

The interdisciplinary group — which includes more than eight researchers across three colleges and six departments at Kansas State — has received a highly competitive, three-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Dynamics of Coupled Natural & Human Systems program.

The project seeks to improve the sustainability of economically important agricultural systems, biologically significant aquatic ecosystems, urban population clusters and clean water supplies.

Melinda Daniels, an adjunct professor of geography at Kansas State and associate research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania, is leading the project, which focuses on the Smoky Hill Watershed as a case study. The watershed extends from eastern Colorado to near Manhattan, Kan., where it joins the Kansas River. It is a narrow basin that stretches across Kansas' strong east-west precipitation gradient, which is drier in western Kansas and gets wetter further east.

The Great Plains region has longstanding water quality and quantity concerns because of extreme climate variability, intensive water uses and land uses.

"Both human and natural systems in this area depend on adequate freshwater for survival, but are fragile, quickly and dramatically affected by climate fluctuations, and potentially face disaster given either natural or human-driven climate scenarios," Daniels said. "Our project ties together the factors that drive land-use decisions and water-use decisions in an attempt to build resiliency in both human and natural systems so that the region can thrive economically and culturally and still produce invaluable ecosystems services like drinking water supply, groundwater recharge, biodiversity and recreation."

The research team said it wants to prevent future water scarcity and water quality problems.