New Arizona State center brings science to policy on issues of water resources and urban growth


Decision Center for a Desert City will help cities face critical decisions on growth and water usage

TEMPE, Ariz. A new $6.9-million center at Arizona State University will study the decision processes used to plan and manage water resources and desert city growth. The center, called the Decision Center for a Desert City, could have a profound effect on the future directions of urban growth in arid regions by providing a sound scientific basis to the decisions that balance growth with finite water resources.

The Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) is one of three new National Science Foundation-funded centers that will investigate human decision-making under climatic uncertainty. The impact of the NSF centers could be felt for years to come as populations move to areas that struggle to achieve sustainability.

"DCDC is a model of our commitment to research with a purpose, which in this case is ensuring a sustainable future for our desert regions," said Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow. "ASU's expertise in climate science, water usage, science and technology policy, and our studies on the effects of urban growth all come into play as we focus on this increasingly important issue of sustainability in arid regions. We know that growth in areas such as ours is exacerbating the impact of existing drought conditions, making decisions on growth and sustainability critically important to this region and others like it."

Crow is one of the investigators on the DCDC project.

The National Science Foundation is funding three Decision Making Under Uncertainty Centers and two research teams (without centers) in the program. The centers and research teams will produce new knowledge, information and tools related to decision making under uncertainty associated with short-term climate variability and long-term climate change. The program is part of President Bush's Climate Change Research Initiative.

"DCDC's focus on water resources is unique among the research teams supported by NSF's Decision Making Under Uncertainty funding opportunity," said Cheryl Eavey, program officer in NSF's Division of Social and Economic Sciences. "NSF expects that DCDC will produce exciting basic research findings and new decision tools that will be valuable for water management in Arizona and in arid regions around the world."

Specifically, DCDC will enhance water management decision-making by:

  • developing Geographic Information System-based decision support tools that foster better long-term understanding and more integrated decision-making;
  • using intermediate-scale climate models to produce regional forecasts of temperatures and precipitation;
  • creating interactive models, visualizations and scenarios to understand complex relationships;
  • investigating the cognitive processes by which people and water managers make decisions;
  • developing and applying sophisticated models of decision science to water allocation and use;
  • engaging the community in discussions about priorities related to water use;
  • developing innovative educational programs organized around water, climate and decision making.

    Life and growth in the desert

    "DCDC will be a vital resource to study the rich history and impact of water management on the growth of Phoenix and the Valley, and it will help us better understand how we manage growth and sustainability of a dynamic and thriving region in the U.S.," said Charles Redman, co-director of DCDC and director of ASU's Center for Environmental Studies.

    Redman is joined by Patricia Gober, a professor of geography, as DCDC co-director. Other principal investigators are Grady Gammage of the Morrison Institute, Robert Bolin, a professor of sociology and Thomas Taylor, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics.

    Increasingly, many believe that even the best science will not significantly reduce uncertainty about global climate warming and the climate cycles that cause droughts, floods and other severe weather events.

    "Society must learn to make better decisions in the face of uncertainty," explained Gober. "Our theme is the creation of partnerships between scientists and decision makers to study and understand the complex relationships between rapidly growing population, finite water resources and climatic variability."

    "With DCDC we want to strengthen the linkages between science and decision makers," Gober added. "We want to explore how to make more informed and better decisions. With the Valley, we have the perfect laboratory in which do to that."

    Redman added that inhabitants of the Phoenix area have dealt with water issues dating back to the ancient native Hohokam, who first settled in the Valley around 500 A.D. and built an enormous irrigation system to water their crops. Today, Phoenix is a fast growing urban complex that provides a uniquely tailored area in which to study the dynamics of population growth and limited water resources.

    "Accessing, distributing and managing water resources has always been a challenge in Phoenix," Redman said. "That makes us an ideal experimental environment to study how to manage and use our limited resources."

    Exploring "what ifs"

    One key capability of DCDC will be to run "what if" scenarios. Researchers and decision makers will use real data and scientific grounding to model hypothetical decisions about the growth of the region and play out scenarios to predict the effects those decisions might have in the future on such variables as water usage, economic expansion, demands on the area's natural resources and on achieving a balance of growth and resources, or sustainability.

    A vital tool for decision makers and DCDC researchers is the Decision Center for the New Arizona, housed in the ASU Brickyard in Tempe. This center, informally referred to as Decision Theater, is a three-dimensional "immersive environment" where researchers use computer modeling, analytic techniques and simulations to literally see the complex patterns and relationships that guide the decision process, and to represent and predict likely effects of public policy choices.

    "At the heart of our effort is the study of how humans make decisions in the face of climatic uncertainty in a rapidly growing region," added Gober. "Central Arizona faces an uncertain climate future due to global climate change, annual variability causing droughts and floods, and the urban heat island effect, which has raised nighttime summer low temperatures almost 10 degrees in the past 50 years."

    "Our team of scientists from geography, anthropology, sociology, management, psychology, math, computer science and public affairs will work with our community partners (City of Phoenix, SRP, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Maricopa County Flood Control District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) to enhance the region's adaptive capacity to make informed decisions about water management given these climatic uncertainties," she added.

    While DCDC's research focus is understanding complexities of water management and the decision making processes that are involved in planning in Phoenix, Redman said what is learned will be important for other arid regions of the world.

    "What we discover will be transportable," he said. "Balancing usable fresh water with population growth and sustainability is a global challenge."

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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