Balancing Water Needs and Water Uses for Humans and Nature

Mountain basins and the headwaters of river basins along the foothills of major mountain ranges are undergoing rapid environmental change due to urban development, land acquisition by private and public investors, population increases, and climate change. Besides increased water supply demand, other impacts of anthropogenic land-use change are the shrinking of groundwater recharge areas, removal of vegetation, and the alteration of links between the landscape and the natural drainage system. The challenge is to develop sustainable and reliable water allocation policies that best support a well-functioning landscape while meeting the basic water demands of natural and human systems and the associated infrastructure. This project will factor the opportunity costs of environmental constraints and the economic value of conservation strategies into hydro-economic assessments of water allocation policy at the basin level. To accomplish this goal, an eco-hydrological model with coupled surface-groundwater and vegetation dynamics will be integrated with a water allocation model and operated within a probabilistic hydro-economic framework to support decision-making. The model will be used to investigate water system sensitivity to: a) land-use modification and land-conversion in rapidly urbanizing landscapes; b) eco-hydrological sustainability defined in terms of hydrological and ecological flows; and c) net present value for baseline conditions (current climate, status-quo policy) and for alternative future adaptation pathways under possible climate change scenarios. 

An innovative framework that brings together scientific and socio-economic principles to evaluate quantitatively and systematically urbanization impacts and adaptation strategies toward improving water resiliency of coupled human-natural systems will be developed. The modeling framework will be tested and evaluated for the French Broad River in the Southern Appalachians, one of the fastest growing rural regions in the nation. The project will be conducted in close collaboration with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the lead local government planning agency in western North Carolina. The research addresses national climate adaptation priorities to enable resilient communities, and is readily transferable to regions elsewhere undergoing large environmental change.

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French Broad River, Southern Appalachians