How do changes in vegetation and climate affect our streams, lakes, aquifers and other water resources? How can we cope with changing water availability and distribution? How can we help cities, farms and others who strongly depend on water resources, predict how much water they will have at their disposal, and when?
To answer such questions, the University of Arizona started in 2000 what would become one of the world's foremost powerhouses in water-related research: SAHRA, or Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas, one of five Science and Technology Centers funded through the National Science Foundation. The UA-led consortium comprises 19 entities including academic institutions, federal agencies, national labs and several organizations like the Mexican Institute of Water Technology.
Dedicated to taking on pressing challenges of water resource management in dry climates, SAHRA's research has produced insights vital to managing water resources not only in the American Southwest, but in other semi-arid regions across the globe.
On Friday, NSF celebrated SAHRA's achievements as part of a "graduation ceremony" highlighting five such NSF-funded Science and Technology Centers, or STCs. The centers have been conducting world-class research and education programs in various disciplines with NSF funding since 2000. Each STC received nearly $40 million under its own cooperative agreement with NSF that concluded in 2010.
"NSF's funding allowed us to bring together researchers from a variety of fields and from a variety of institutions and achieve the critical mass for tackling the really big and relevant questions," said Juan Valdes, director of SAHRA and a professor of hydrology and water resources at the UA.
Gary Woodard, SAHRA's associate director for knowledge transfer and international activities, added: "Hydrologists, atmospheric scientists, social scientists, physical scientists, field researchers, laboratory researchers, to name but a few, have all been working together over a long period of time. This is truly exceptional."
Much of SAHRA's efforts have been in knowledge transfer, education and stakeholder outreach, in addition to scientific research.
"Our research has been oriented towards working with stakeholders and producing results of practical use to stakeholders and other decision-makers," Woodard said. "We have worked with farmers, ranchers, irrigation districts, environmental groups and others in planning the research. For example, if we can determine how much water is in the snow cover, we can better predict the availability of that melt water. With this information, farmers will have a better handle on how much water they can expect, helping them with decisions about planting crops and possibly selling or leasing surplus water."
SAHRA, which also is part of UA's Water Sustainability Program, uses an interdisciplinary approach to provide science-based technical, economic, legal and policy expertise necessary for water development, use and conservation policies. These efforts are designed to help Arizona sustain a high-quality water supply for economic development and offer an enhanced quality of life.
Water management issues addressed by this STC are particularly timely because they often are contentious and because ever-expanding semi-arid regions currently account for one-quarter of the contiguous U.S.
One testament to SAHRA's success was its receipt of the 2007 International Great Man-made River Prize from UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization.
"These five centers have achieved remarkable advances across broad areas of science and engineering," said W. Lance Haworth, director of NSF's Office of Integrative Activities. "They have opened up new research directions, developed new ways of doing research and state-of-the-art facilities, including the Science and Technology Center on the Sustainability of Water Resources in Semi-Arid Regions' ecohydrological observatory in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico; and they have demonstrated significant technological and societal impact."
SAHRA brought in more than $50 million in funding and in-kind contributions over the last decade. The center also served as an incubator and template for similar multi-year, multi-million dollar proposals from the UA, several of which have recently been funded.
Despite the conclusion of NSF's initial funding period, SAHRA's work will continue, aiming for a lasting legacy in the field of integrated semi-arid hydrology that will benefit future researchers, water agencies and the private sector.
In addition to conducting potentially transformative research, the "graduating" STCs run innovative programs that advance science education for students of all levels, promote technology transfer and increase diversity in science and engineering.
SAHRA has educated the next generation of diverse, multidisciplinary research hydrologists, educators, water managers and professionals addressing water issues. To date, more than 100 SAHRA-supported students have received master's or doctoral degrees. In addition, the center has been active in educating the public, especially K-12 students and educators, about water-related issues.
With the graduation of these five STCs, NSF still currently supports 12 others. They have fostered partnerships with dozens of U.S. and international colleges and universities – including many minority-serving institutions – government labs, and private sector organizations. In so doing, these STCs have built new intellectual and physical infrastructures for interdisciplinary collaborations, and linked new knowledge to society. NSF will announce the next "class" of STCs later this month.
A recorded Webcast of the "STC graduation celebration" is available online.