Water Wise: working across disciplines to solve problems of scarcity and contamination

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where water is relatively abundant. Gore-Tex raincoats and rubber boots were standard winter wear, and most of the historic buildings in my hometown of Oregon City have marks on the wall to record the high-water line for more than one major flood. Water was more than just a matter of weather though. Even from a young age, I understood that water connects people across time and space. My parents’ house was just up the hill from the treatment plant that pulled our drinking water from the Clackamas River. On a clear day, I could stand on their deck and see the glaciers clinging to the side of Mt. Hood that fed the streams that flowed into the upper reaches of the Clackamas and eventually ended up in our kitchen faucet. As years passed and the glaciers visibly receded each summer, I couldn’t help but wonder what that meant for everyone who depended on the rivers around me.

Just a few miles downstream, the Clackamas joins the Willamette River at a site that was one of the longest continually inhabited places of trade and gathering in North America, until the Indigenous people of the region were violently removed by early settlers and the territorial government in the middle part of the 19th century. Willamette Falls in downtown Oregon City continues to be a testament to this uneasy history of settler occupation and Indigenous land relationships, as tribal members gather every summer to harvest lamprey (an ancient species of eel-like fish with sucker mouths) off of the spray-soaked rocks that sit next to abandoned paper mills, which fueled the region’s economy, until the contaminant laden discharge nearly killed the river. In places like this, water condenses centuries of complicated history into a fundamental difference in how natural resources are understood, and distills a vague and unpredictable future of “climate change” into a clear timeline of glacial shrinkage and dwindling water resources.

When I moved to Colorado to join the ethnic studies department faculty this August, I thought that living in a much drier state would mean that people were less connected by water (although perhaps more aware of the need for conservation), but so far, I have found it’s the opposite. One of the first things I learned about Colorado was that it is one of only two headwater states in the United States - that is, all of the water flowing in Colorado originates in Colorado, none of it arrives here from somewhere else. And maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise in a state where the namesake river connects us to an entire region that is struggling with scarcity, aridification, increasing population and other demands, and we’re working to sort this all out under water policy that was developed hundreds of years ago for a much wetter west than the one we now live in.

Most, if not all, of the major US environmental crises in recent history have been about water in one way or another - the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s predominantly African-American population with contaminated drinking water, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the encampment at Standing Rock - all of these had to do with the rights to clean water for direct uses like drinking, cooking, washing and bathing, as well as the indirect ways communities rely on healthy aquatic environments to sustain wildlife and support local economies that rely on fishing and tourism. Environmental concerns in Colorado are no different - they all boil down to water.

On this summer’s Ram Engagement Tour, an opportunity provided by the Office of the Provost (with support from the Office of Engagement and CSU Online) for new and newly promoted faculty and administrators to learn about CSU’s community partnerships throughout the state, every single spokesperson and presenter had something to say about water, whether it was sharing water-wise growing methods to promote food security, developing drought tolerant plant species, managing the state’s forests to account for reduced precipitation, or, creative ways to diversify income sources by facilitating multiple uses of the same stretch of waterway.

Water has always connected people across geographies, but water in the West today brings us together to solve problems of scarcity and contamination in ways that cut across traditional academic boundaries. “Interdisciplinary” has become a bit of a buzzword in academia, but in practice it’s conceptually difficult, time consuming, and often not rewarded by the institution the same way traditional scholarship is. Water issues in the American West, however, don’t allow us the luxury of “staying in our lane.” We need history and law to explain how we arrived at our current water rights paradigm, we need biology and chemistry to collect and interpret data about water quality, we need political science and economics to help us understand how money and power impact decisions about water, we need environmental sciences to clarify the roles water plays in a healthy ecosystem, and we need ethnic studies to explain why it is that Indigenous and Communities of Color are almost always affected first and worst by water issues.

But most importantly, we need to work together across all these disciplines to fully address the challenges that water presents in the 21st century. From scarcity and drought, to equitable distribution across a growing population, to contamination from mining and other extractive industries, water in Colorado is the nexus for interdisciplinary research that fulfills CSU’s land-grant mission: practical, applied research that addresses complex problems in a shifting social landscape.