Advocating for change

PhD student Jonathan Dubinsky works with the community to implement sustainability metrics for the San Luis Valley.

Over the summer, between 12 and 20 percent of the United States experienced some level of drought, and as the country’s water supply continues to decrease, water conservation and sustainability practices are becoming more of a priority for communities around the country.

Civil engineering PhD candidate Jonathan Dubinsky has spent the past three years working with the community in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square-mile high-altitude agricultural valley, collecting and analyzing data to measure carbon and water footprints and then developing future scenario models to change them.

Why the San Luis Valley?

The San Luis Valley is in a severe drought, and has been for decades. In addition to the extended drought, the region also faces declining land health and a depleting water table. Based on Dubinsky’s research, 77 percent of the water consumption is through agriculture.

“We utilized region-specific data and models to analyze the consumptive water use of the San Luis Valley,” he said. “The study reveals that on an average, the basin experiences three months of water shortage per year due to the unsustainable extraction of groundwater.”

This is all in the context of new groundwater use rules and regulations for the San Luis Valley, which were accepted by the court in 2015. These rules require groundwater users to (a) repay impacts to streams’ flows due to pumping and (b) maintain a sustainable aquifer system instead of continuing to pump it to extinction. Accomplishing both of these regulations will require careful planning and cooperation.

In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Research and Development asked the question “What can we do with regional sustainability assessment?” and focused on the San Luis Valley. The EPA developed four metrics — ecological footprint, green net regional product, fisher information and emergy analysis — applied them to the region, and created an extensive report, which they then presented to the community. However, the process ended there.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Dubinsky. “The EPA spent time, money and effort on this project, and the people of the region weren’t sure what to do with the resulting information.”

At about the time Dubinsky was beginning his doctoral studies, civil engineering associate professor Arunprakash Karunanithi presented him with the opportunity to work on a project funded by the EPA and focused on creating an effective regional sustainability analysis on the San Luis Valley. This became the emphasis of his dissertation, which he successfully defended in August.

Dubinsky had the same end-goal as the EPA, but the manner through which he gathered data and developed his analysis and solutions was different. Dubinsky tailored two metrics by which to measure sustainability and used a method called community-based participatory research.

Community-based participatory research

Once he committed to the research, Dubinsky was determined to provide the people of the San Luis Valley with a baseline sustainability assessment and realistic future scenarios that could be used by the community. That was the charge by the EPA, too. However, instead of simply doing the research and presenting the results, Dubinsky chose to engage with the community throughout the entire process.

“An emphasis behind this work is the philosophy that sustainability can never happen without engaging with the community,” he said. “Ultimately the community is responsible for defining sustainability for themselves and implementing change.”

The process is called community-based participatory research, which takes a collaborative approach to research problems and involves all the constituents affected by the outcome.

“Over the past three years, I traveled to the valley at least four times per year,” said Dubinsky. “I took more than 50 interviews and went to a lot of community meetings. I really wanted to get a pulse on the issues, and from what I learned, water (or lack of it) is the biggest issue they’re facing.”

Based on the input from the community, he chose two metrics: greenhouse gas accounting and consumptive water use analysis.

“I felt like those metrics were more relevant for the region than the other four previously used,” he explained. “In the scientific community, we understand that carbon and water are intrinsically intertwined. The energy-water nexus is an energy buzzword that’s being used today to talk about this. Energy requires water, and to pump water requires energy. If you can address one issue, you can actually address multiple issues at the same time.”

A classic approach to community-based participatory research is through surveys — they allow the researcher to collect people’s input and find out what’s important to them. However, Dubinsky felt it was more important to dig deep with a small group of people representative of the community. After visiting the region a number of times, he performed a stakeholder analysis based on interviews and community meetings to determine a subset of individuals from the community to move the project forward. He settled on 20 individuals from across the valley and formed a community advisory board.

“The community advisory board has met quarterly for the past two years and played an integral part in the development of carbon and water metrics,” said Dubinsky. “It was an ongoing process that allowed us to gain access to local data and information that’s not readily available.”

Dubinsky believed that because the San Luis Valley is a rural, agricultural area, community members tend to be skeptical of “outsiders.” It was important for him to build a sense of trust to develop solutions useful to the region, which is why he spent so much time meeting with people from across the valley.

“When doing community-based participatory research, you have to delicately foster a sense of appreciation, awe and respect for the community in which you’re researching, because if you don’t they’ll recognize you have an agenda,” he said. “The goal of community-based participatory research is to align the agendas of the community with the agenda of the research. The idea is, once you’re in alignment, then they’ll be much more receptive to the results.”

The scenarios

A big part of his work with the community was developing the metrics by getting data, understanding how the system works and tailoring the sustainability metrics to the region to ensure a robust region-specific baseline.

“I wanted to work with the community to design future scenarios they believe are actually feasible,” said Dubinsky. “They understand the region and what can/cannot happen economically, politically and socially. Let’s find out what they’re interested in doing, and then let’s model those scenarios. So that’s what we did.”

As a group, they developed two scenarios with multiple options: a solar-energy scenario and an agricultural/land-use change scenario. He has modeled both and presented the results to the community advisory board and other stakeholders in the region this summer.

With the solar-energy scenario, the community has three options. The region can continue business as usual, making no changes to their current solar capabilities. The second option is a utility-scale solar energy plan based on a plan from the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy, which would create three new solar energy zones and drastically increase the solar capacity of the region. The third option is a community-based solar energy plan, which upgrades the current solar capacity of the region by developing private irrigated farmland.

With the agricultural/land-use change scenario, the community advisory board determined the region needed 10 years to meet the aquifer sustainability legislation that was signed into law in 2015. There are a number of ways to attain this goal, including converting 30,000 acres from alfalfa crops to a small grain; leaving 7,500 acres of alfalfa fields uncultivated each season; taking 25,000 acres of potato and small-grain crops out of production each year; and changing 40,000 acres of land from a potato/grain rotation to a potato/cover crop rotation.

While all of the options provide viable long-term solutions to the water-shortage problem, it is ultimately up to the community to decide on which options work best for them and to implement the changes.

“I’ve used data to measure carbon emissions and water use and how that’s changed over time. Then, based on the community’s input, I’ve presented scenarios to change it,” said Dubinsky. “I hope that I’ve empowered them to continue to update the metrics and come up with additional scenarios. I’ve presented a taste of what this could look like with the goal of continuing the relationship into the future.”