Research Projects

Our research activities focus on technological, infrastructural, policy, and institutional innovations that foster sustainable FEWS in a changing world. These innovations will leverage our ability to use resources more efficiently, with less waste, and with governance structures in place to distribute authority and information in an equitable manner. CSU Faculty interested in mentoring InTERFEWS trainees can propose research topics here, and industry partners interested in proposing a project or idea can do so here.

CURRENT PROJECTS

Project 1: Urban Water Efficiency for Resource Allocation in Semi-Arid Regions

Municipalities respond to increasing demand for water via infrastructure investments or acquisition of water rights from other sectors. This results in permanent dry-up of historically irrigated land and the inequitable reduction in economic activity in rural economies. Water demands for oil and gas production further intensifies pressures on local water supply for food production. However, innovations in urban water conservation and reuse provide solutions to enhance water supply reliability under population and climate uncertainty. A trainee will develop urban water technologies that provide cross-sectoral benefits (and co-benefits) for FEWS. These technologies facilitate water sensitive urban design via use of stormwater, treated wastewater and graywater, water conserving fixtures, xeriscaping and urban irrigation efficiency.

Multi-objective optimization will be used to identify pareto optimal frontiers when balancing short-term profitability and long-term resilience of water resources. Scenarios to be assessed include: 1) Policies to promote urban water conservation and reuse; 2) Urban growth control and land development policy; 3) Municipal purchase of agricultural water rights, alternative water transfers; and 4) Policies to limit fossil-fuel energy production and accelerate renewable energy portfolio.

Advisors

  • Sybil Sharvelle (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Mazdak Arabi (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Chris Goemans (Agricultural & Resource Economics)
  • Stephanie Malin (Sociology)
  • Thomas Bradley (Mechanical Engineering)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

Trainees will gain knowledge and skills to develop models to assess tradeoffs. Economics, policy and social sciences are deeply embedded in this project.

Systems Perspective

This project includes systems level analysis of impacts of urban water efficiency including assessment of cross-sectoral benefits to broadly assess FEWS impacts and co-benefits.

 

Project 2: On-Farm Technological Innovations in Semi-Arid Agricultural Systems

The decline of water resources and increased competition for land threaten the sustainability of food production systems in semi-arid regions. Energy extraction and on-farm renewable energy production also influence land use policy. While farm water conservation technologies have been shown to improve farm profitability, their adoption remains limited mainly due to prevailing land, water, and energy policy and institutions. The economic impetus provided by the availability and improved feasibility of on-farm renewable energy systems could facilitate the transition to “Smart Farms” in semi-arid regions by addressing these economic and institutional barriers. The trainee will develop information technology that enables interoperability of on-farm interconnected small scale energy systems (i.e. wind, solar, and bioenergy conversion) and advanced irrigation technologies (e.g. micro-irrigation).

Widely-used farm information technologies developed at CSU and partner institutions provide information on farm-scale water use, energy/fuel usage, and GHG emissions The trainee will develop Smart Farm systems that integrate on-farm, real-time, and in-situ data (e.g. soil moisture, crop yield, fuel savings, and irrigation well pumping meters) to inform adaptive management and to enable precision agriculture.

Advisors

  • Megan Schipanski (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Mazdak Arabi (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Rich Conant (Ecosystem Science and Sustainability)
  • Keith Paustian (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Thomas Bradley (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Chris Goemans (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The project integrates agronomic and irrigation management knowledge with big data and systems-based modeling and assessment tools. Co-designing possible scenarios for evaluation with stakeholders will integrate social, economic and policy contexts.

Systems Perspective

LCA and spatial analysis will be used to evaluate the potential for agriculture to compete with energy extraction and urban demands for land and water, working in partnership with groundwater management groups, policymakers, and producers.

Project 3: Assessing Links Between Social Environmental Justice Issues and FEWS in Semi-Arid Regions

Colorado has seen quadrupled rates of oil extraction since 2010 and natural gas extraction has increased 51% since 2010 (EIA, 2017), due in part to technologies such as hydraulic fracturing. This can create dual natural resource dependencies that manifest as environmental injustices at the household, organizational, and community levels. This project assesses the social environmental justice issues associated with FEWS at the rural-urban interface in semi-arid regions, arising from rapid urbanization and energy development. In this project, a trainee will use multiple qualitative methods and community-based participatory fieldwork to investigate intersecting relationships between FEW resource allocation and social environmental justice.

Advisors

  • Stephanie Malin (Sociology)

  • Chris Goemans (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

  • Keith Paustian (Soil & Crop Sciences)

  • Sybil Sharvelle (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project brings together perspectives and methods from environmental and natural resource sociology, environmental health, political science (governance), water law, and environmental justice. In addition, a trainee will develop community-based research skills.

Systems Perspective

Drivers such as urbanization and population growth, increasing water-intensive unconventional oil and gas production, industrialized agricultural practices, and increasing urban growth create pressures on FEWS resources. Environmental inequities as well as economic impacts will be assessed.

Project 4: Thin-Film Photobioreactor System Fuel and Fertilizer Production

The production of liquid fuels from biomass is a case study in FEW nexus issues. Biofuels have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than fossil fuels, and biomass production removes CO2 from the atmosphere. However, biofuel production from terrestrial plant biomass consumes large amounts of water and nutrients, and thus competes for those resources with food production. While semi-arid locations have abundant sunlight, the competition for fresh water is a significant concern. The use of algae and cyanobacteria to produce biofuels has been the focus of research for several decades and has largely been directed to capitalize on the ability of algae to accumulate high levels of lipids. Phototrophic microorganisms can grow much more rapidly than plants; can thrive in fresh, brackish, or saline water; and can be grown on land that would be unusable for plant crops. But because cell concentrations are low, large amounts of energy are required to move water and culture, and to recover products.

The goals of this project are to develop novel thin-film photobioreactor (TFPB) systems for production of fuel and ammonia by cyanobacteria from carbon dioxide, atmospheric nitrogen, and sunlight, and to assess the resource benefits and economic impacts of these systems. The cultivation approach unique to this technology will result in greatly reduced consumption of nutrients and energy, as well as lower water losses. In addition, nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria can be engineered to release ammonia, providing a means of producing this key fertilizer with far less energy than the widely used Haber-Bosch process.

Advisors

  • Ken Reardon (Chemical & Biological Engineering)

  • Jason Quinn (Mechanical Engineering)

  • Jesse Burkhardt (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The project blends biology, engineering, and economics to develop a new technology and assess systems level benefits of the technology.

Systems Perspective

Resource and economic modeling will be used to evaluate the impact of the TFPB technology on the nutrient, water, and energy.

 

Project 5: Agricultural Use of Groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer

More than 90% of the groundwater pumped from the High Plains or Ogallala aquifer is used to produce agricultural crops. Due to historical pumping, limited recharge rates, climate change, or cross-state groundwater agreements, large parts of the southern and western edges of the aquifer have or will need to transition from irrigated annual crops to dryland perennial grasses or annual crops. How this transition is managed has major implications for the region’s economics, but also for soil carbon, erosion susceptibility, and food production. Through this project, a student will conduct field, spatial, and modeling analyses to estimate the potential implications of different land use scenarios to help inform planning and policy at multiple scales. Transition scenarios will include re-establishing perennial grasslands managed with or without grazing and/or annual dryland crops for feed or biofuels. Scenarios will be evaluated for their potential carbon benefits, water use efficiency, productivity and profitability (and/or incentives required). The student will gain skills in soil analyses, GIS analysis, and ecosystem modeling. In addition, this complex issue will require an understanding of the policy environment that influences groundwater management, agricultural land use, and carbon markets.

Advisors

  • Meagan Schipanski (Soil & Crop Sciences)

  • Rich Conant (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability)

Systems Perspective

The student will have the opportunity to work with diverse groups of stakeholders that are facing challenges of developing policy and/or practices in response to climate change and declining groundwater. This will require a thorough understanding of the full system, which includes, land suitability, crop and livestock production systems, water management, and economics with implications for the energy sector in the region that is dependent on current groundwater users.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project will integrate climate science, soil science, policy, and economics.

Project 6: Energy Efficient Integrated Urban Water Management Using Microgrids

Even by conservative estimates, the global demand for energy and water is expected to increase by 40-50% by 2030 and urban populations will almost double by 2050. Management of freshwater, grey water, and storm water will become more critical in urban agglomerations while humanity battles the effects of climate change. The trainee will conceptualize, design, and develop operation philosophies for energy efficient multimodal (grid connected and grid paralleled) microgrids for water management systems in cities. While there are pilot projects underway (e.g., in CA) for water management using microgrids, the proposed topic is unique in: design space including both energy and water management; low carbon footprint; multimodal operation; and, provision of ancillary value proposition to related critical infrastructures. Research tasks will include:

  1. Identification of native energy resources including renewable sources that will power the microgrid
  2. Deep exploration of the interdependencies of the realms of water and energy management in urban areas
  3. Design of multimodal microgrids for water management using information on interdependencies
  4. Development of operational philosophies for the multimodal microgrids that may translate into other (ancillary) value propositions for the electricity grid; and
  5. Development of mathematical models and demonstration on co-simulation testbed for water and energy management.

Additionally, the trainee may probe future opportunities of this technology in relief efforts in disaster-prone areas (e.g., regions in the Atlantic hurricane trajectory) for providing clean water and energy.

Advisors

  • Sid Suryanarayanan (Electrical & Computer Engineering)

  • Neil Grigg (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

  • TBD (Cultural Anthropology)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The trainee will benefit from the inherent interdisciplinarity of two critical infrastructures (water and electricity) that span civil and electrical engineering domains. Also, cultural anthropology and urban design topics will contribute to true convergence at an appropriate stage.

Systems Perspective

The project will closely follow enterprise systems engineering approaches to microgrid design and operation with benefit-cost-risk analyses related to FEWS.

Project 7: Forest Fire Impacts on Headwater Quality in the Rocky Mountains

Forests are well known for providing sources of energy and clean water as well as helping agricultural production through soil protection and water provision. However, the frequency and severity of forest fires has increased in recent decades, creating a heavy social and economic burden on millions of people across the United States. These forests provide valuable ecosystem services such as drinking water provision, carbon sequestration, erosion prevention, and climate change mitigation estimated at trillions of dollars a year. However, from 2008-2017 the estimated losses due to wildfires was roughly $20 billion, not including the loss of these services. The 2018 Colorado wildfires resulted in one of the worst years in history and fires such as the 2016 Beaver Creek Fire and 2018 Ryan Fire in northern Colorado have disturbed and contaminated sensitive headwater ecosystems. This catchment receives atmospherically deposited mercury originating from upwind coal-fired power plants that accumulates in forest soils and vegetation and is re-mobilized following fire events. This pool of mercury (Hg) can be transported into surface waters and sediments, and thus pose risk to ecosystems, agriculture and human health.

The major goal of this project is to develop a fundamental understanding of how forest fires impact microbial, chemical and physical processes that control transport of nutrients (N and P), toxic metals (Hg), sediment and organic carbon into headwater streams. In this project, students will compare sites burned during the Ryan Fire with unburned control sites. Advanced chemical analysis and metagenomics will be used to generate new knowledge on feedback and hydro-biogeochemical cycles in burned forested watersheds. Watershed hydrology and sediment flow models will be developed for application of other fire-impacted sites and results will be used to inform land restoration and water quality management decisions. Students will be exposed to ecosystem services valuation approaches needed to determine how wildfires influence the value of water delivered from forest watersheds. Additionally, project involvement with management agencies and local and regional stakeholders will promote understanding of the links between forest conditions and water supply and help guide decisions about how to sustain high elevation watersheds.

Advisors

  • Thomas Borch (Soil & Crop Sciences)

  • Mike Wilkins (Soil & Crop Sciences)

  • Tim Covino (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability)

  • Chuck Rhoades (Soil & Crop Sciences; Forest & Rangeland Stewardship; US Forest Service, Rock Mountain Research Station)

  • Travis Warziniack (Agricultural & Resource Economics; Forest & Rangeland Stewardship; US Forest Service, Rock Mountain Research Station)

  • Patty Champ (Agricultural & Resource Economics; US Forest Service, Rock Mountain Research Station)

Systems Perspective

This project includes systems level analysis of forest fire impacts on soil health and headwater quality in order to provide information critical for improving and sustaining food-energy-water systems in semi-arid regions.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project integrates soil chemistry, hydrology, microbiology, forest ecosystem ecology, ecosystem services valuation and socioeconomic approaches to help understand the consequences of forest fires on watershed conditions and water quality in semi-arid regions. Close collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, farmers, and water managers plays an integral role in this project.

Project 8: Urban Irrigation and Stormwater Management Effects on Agricultural Income

Competition for limited surface water in the South Platte River Basin of Colorado has accelerated with increasing urban growth in the basin. Snowmelt from the mountain headwaters of the South Platte flows through the urban Front Range before flowing east to farmers with senior water rights. Although limited rainwater harvesting was legalized in Colorado in 2016, opposition to this measure came from skepticism about the effect of urban water conservation on the availability of water for senior water rights holders. The trainee will investigate how rainwater harvesting, stormwater infiltration, and conservation in lawn irrigation change streamflow in the South Platte River. We will use hydrologic analysis of streamflow monitoring in more than 10 urban watersheds in the Denver metropolitan area under a range of flow conditions. The empirical analysis will be combined with hydrologic modeling of management scenarios and their effects on water yield. The value for agricultural producers of changes in South Platte flow with varying urban water management scenarios will be estimated using water pricing and historical connections between streamflow conditions, and agricultural income. The effects of urban water management on agricultural income will be explored over a variety of climate and urban growth scenarios.

Advisors

  • Aditi Bhaskar (Civil & Environmental Engineering)

  • Stephanie Kampf (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability)
  • Dale Manning (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project integrates urban water management and policy, hydrologic analysis, water law, economics, and agricultural and environmental effects of changes in streamflow.

Systems Perspective

The South Platte River Basin is a hydro-economic system where management changes upstream flow to affect water availability downstream. We will evaluate the effects of urban water management on streamflow, and then translate that flow change to an economic value for agricultural producers downstream.

Project 9: Anaerobic Treatment of Organic Wastes for Resource Recovery

Organic waste material such as municipal fraction organic waste (e.g. food waste and yard waste), food processing wastewater, and manure from animal feeding operations can be treated anaerobically to generate methane or organic acids. Organic acids can be converted into high value products such as fuel or plastics. At the same time, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can be recovered from the waste material to further enhance resource recovery. Little is understood about the systems level impacts of recovering methane versus more financially valuable organic acids. Uncertainty in whether to focus technology development on methane or organic acid production is currently inhibiting advancement in the field. Further, tradeoffs exist between generation of different products from organic waste material. For example, maximizing nitrogen recovery can alter pH in a way that is inhibitory for methane production. A trainee will develop resource recovery technologies for FEWS and assess tradeoffs between recovery of different products. Technologies and processes will be developed to enhance resource recovery from organic wastes, while also understanding systems level considerations of those technologies. This research can inform high level policy decisions that impact research and development of anaerobic technology for resource recovery.

Advisors

  • Sybil Sharvelle (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Chris Goemans (Agricultural & Resource Economics)
  • Thomas Bradley (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Susan De Long (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Jim Ippolito (Soil & Crop Sciences)

Systems Perspective

This project includes systems level analysis of impacts of resource recovery products from organic waste material to broadly assess FEWS impacts and carbon footprint.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

Trainees will gain knowledge not only on technology development, but also skills to develop models to assess tradeoffs. Economics and policy are deeply embedded in this project.

Project 10: Sustainable Household Energy Adoption in Rwanda (SHEAR): Promoting Rural Health with Solar and Natural Gas

Exposure to pollution from the use of traditional energy sources is a top-ten risk factor for morbidity and mortality worldwide. Emissions from traditional energy sources in the home create unhealthy levels of pollution and the issue is pervasive. Approximately 3 billion people rely on fuels like wood, charcoal, and kerosene to support needs such as cooking food, heating, and lighting. Approximately 80% of the population in Rwanda uses such fuels, making environmental pollution exposure to the 3rd leading contributor to the burden of disease in this country.

Nearly 50 years of research on ‘cleaner’ household energy technologies has demonstrated only modest global impact, due to a combination of economic, cultural, and technologic barriers that prevent access to and usage of clean energy. A further limitation is that nearly all household energy interventions, to date, have focused on replacing only a single energy source (i.e., replacing just cooking, or just lighting) with a more modern technology.

We propose to address these issues by conducting a randomized controlled trial that (1) focuses on total household energy (2) in a country that evinces readiness for alternative forms of energy, (3) by forming a public-private partnership to promote technological solutions that are consumer-focused and market sustainable, (4) by investigating outcome measures that are clinically actionable and strongly linked to morbidity/mortality, and (5) by developing project outputs that can inform policymakers with cost-benefit information.

We hypothesize that a whole-house energy intervention (replacing all primitive forms of energy within the home with cleaner, modern forms) will produce meaningful reductions in pollution and health benefits in rural Rwandan homes. The randomized controlled trial will substitute traditional forms of household energy (biomass for cooking and kerosene for lighting) with solar power and liquefied petroleum gas stoves in rural Rwanda. Participants will be followed for 3 years with repeated measurements of household pollution exposure, energy usage, and health. Primary health endpoints will include blood pressure in adult women and men and lung-function growth in children; secondary health endpoints include blood pressure in children and lung-function change in adults.

The long-term goals of this research are to increase the clinical knowledge-base on the health effects on household air pollution, to demonstrate that a whole-house energy intervention will produce meaningful household air pollution reductions and health benefits in rural Rwandan homes, to elucidate the relationship between fuel subsidy levels and household air pollution exposure, and to demonstrate that scalable solutions to the household air pollution disease burden are achievable via public-private-governmental partnerships.

Advisors

  • John Volckens (Mechanical Engineering)

  • Maggie Clark (Environmental & Radiological Health Sciences)

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project represents a multi-PI effort (Volckens, Clark) that spans four CSU entities (WSCoE, CVMBS, CoA, Energy Institute) with contributions from faculty in engineering (John Volckens), public health (Maggie Clark), energy systems (Dan Zimmerle), and resource economics (Dale Manning). The student working on this project will contribute to field work in Rwanda to include survey administration, exposure and health assessment, energy technology delivery, and complex, hierarchical data analyses.

Systems Perspective

This research is designed to examine the home as an energy delivery system, with particular emphasis on the beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors of the home occupants, and how the use of modern energy technologies (primarily for food and light), can promote both the health and welfare of the home occupants.

Project 11: Exploring the Viability of Cover Crops on the Colorado Plateau

In the semi-arid region of the Colorado Plateau, economic activity depends largely on agriculture. However, in recent years, increasingly erratic precipitation patterns have decreased the dependability of food production and overall farmer livelihoods. For example, 2018 was the fourth driest year on record in the region since the state began tracking water supplies over a century ago, while above average precipitation thus far in 2019 puts many farms at risk of flooding and soil erosion. Dryland wheat systems in the region typically leave soils bare for much of the cropping cycle in order to recharge soil moisture, but resulting erosion combined with low organic matter and nutrient inputs have contributed to widespread loss of soil carbon and overall soil degradation. Farmers are thus eager to find new innovative solutions to address the growing issues of water scarcity and overall soil health decline.

Cover crops have been put forth as a potential solution to increase soil water capture, while also reducing erosion, sequestering carbon and improving soil health. By decreasing runoff, cover crops may allow soils to better retain rainfall from intense storms and increase cropping system resilience in drought years. However, tradeoffs are inevitable and cover crops can also compete for water with cash crops. Cover crop impacts on water dynamics as well as potential benefits for soil health and overall farm profitability are context-dependent and vary according to climatic conditions as well as local management practices. While cover crop impacts are better understood in wetter climates, data for the Colorado Plateau and similar semi-arid regions is notably lacking.

This project seeks to apply an interdisciplinary approach, using on-farm and research station trials, to assess the viability of cover crops as a solution to soil degradation and erosion on the Colorado Plateau and to evaluate potential tradeoffs associated with water dynamics and agricultural productivity. We are currently working to quantify the medium-term impacts of cover crops on crop yields, water dynamics and multiple ecosystem services including: erosion control, carbon sequestration, and key soil microbial functions. Along with these agronomic and ecological metrics, we will evaluate effects of cover crops on net costs and potential risk to producers as well as overall profitability of the cropping system. This project has grown directly out of local producer and stakeholder discussions, and represents a truly collaborative effort to understand the potential of cover crops to enhance long-term profitability and environmental quality of the region.

Advisors

  • Steven Fonte (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Kathleen Russell (Southwestern Colorado Research Center)
  • Pankaj Trivedi (Bioagricultural Sciences & Pest Management)
  • Daniel Mooney (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Systems Perspective

Our team will evaluate overall cropping system functionality using an interdisciplinary approach and considering processes occurring multiple spatial and temporal scales. This work will elucidate the viability of cover crops and overall agroecosystem efficiency from the perspective of water use, carbon and nutrient cycling, energy inputs and overall profitability. We will build upon existing research plots to evaluate long-term cover crop impacts and work with participating farmers who have incorporated cover crops into various cash crop rotations present in the region.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The research outlined here brings together a strategic collaboration of producers, extension specialists, and researchers from multiple fields including ecology, agronomy, soil science, microbiology, and economics. By integrating multiple disciplines, we aim to provide a truly integrative assessment of cover crop viability on the Colorado Plateau (with relevance for dryland regions around the globe) from an agronomic, ecological, economic, and social perspective.

Project 12: Fires to Farms: How does wildfire smoke driven changes in radiation impact crops?

This project will determine how wildfire smoke impacts U.S. food production by changing incoming radiation. Human-caused climate change, natural climate variability, and a legacy of wildfire suppression all contribute to variability in western U.S. wildfire activity. While communities within or near wildland-urban interfaces have seen the most devastating impacts, the effects of the smoke can be felt downwind. Forest fires are a large source of atmospheric particulate matter (PM), also called aerosols, which are transported thousands of kilometers in the atmosphere. Studies suggest that the scattering of visible light by aerosols, including transported smoke, may impact crop productivity, and therefore food production capacity, through changes to crop radiation use efficiency (RUE). However, the magnitude and sign of this effect remain uncertain. The impact of interactions between these smoke-induced effects and other climate-related stressors (e.g., water availability and extreme weather) on crop yields are also not understood. We hypothesize that smoke-induced changes to solar radiation may contribute to variability in crop yields, which may have severe economic consequences and could become an even larger issue in a warmer world with increased forest fire activity.

This project calls upon expertise, analysis techniques, and datasets from the atmospheric, agricultural, and social sciences. Specifically, students will integrate remote sensing smoke datasets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), surface-based solar radiation measurements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) UV-B Monitoring and Research Program, and county-level yield from the USDA Farm Service Agency to determine how smoke has contributed to observed temporal and spatial variability in visible radiation reaching the surface, and how this variability has impacted crop yields and wages via modifications to crop RUE in the Midwest and Western U.S. Potential interactions and feedbacks between smoke-induced changes to solar radiation and other climate stressors will also be explored. This work will inform future analyses of the impacts of climate change on food production.

Advisors

  • Emily Fischer (Atmospheric Science)
  • Chelsea Corr-Limoges (USDA UV-B Monitoring & Research Program, Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory)
  • Raj Khosla (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Jesse Burkhardt (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Systems Perspective

Investigating the impacts of smoke on agriculture requires a holistic perspective on human and natural systems and their interactions. Diverse expertise, datasets, and analysis approaches across several disciplines will be used to address this understudied aspect of the biological impact of climate change on agriculture.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This project integrates atmospheric chemistry, physics, social, and agricultural sciences with implications for the broader U.S. food system.

Project 13: Cost-Effective On-Site Produced Water Treatment System for Agriculture Reuse in the Semi-Arid West

Hydraulic fracturing is one of the most common practices in today’s oil and gas industry and has greatly increased the U.S. natural gas production. However, one negative impact from the process is the large quantities of contaminated produced water which require treatment and disposal. The most common industry practice for water disposal is deep well injection which has adverse environment impacts (i.e., inducing earthquakes and contaminating subsurface aquifer), and does not have any beneficial reuse of produced water. Many stakeholders are actively seeking technologies that enable beneficial reuse while maintaining a low cost similar to deep well injection. One potential option is to develop a low cost high recovery treatment train which is powered by abundant on-site energy and can allow for beneficial reuse of produced water via crop irrigation.

The team is looking for a student to facilitate design, analysis, construct, and experimental validation of a treatment train for produced water from well sites in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. There are currently no regulations regarding produced water reuse for agricultural irrigation, so one important factor in this study will be the greenhouse trials that will analyze key factors such as plant yield, health, immune response, and the effects on soil micro biome. The trials will truly determine the viability of the proposed treatment train with respect to agricultural irrigation. In parallel, the team will conduct techno economic analysis on a full scale system to assess feasibility of commercial development. Preliminary techno economic analysis has shown treatment costs as low as 1.13 $/bbl, which is on par with deep well injection. However, these promising results will require further analysis, and other economical pathways – including local water transport to nearby wells – will be evaluated.

Advisors

  • Todd Bandhauer (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Tiezheng Tong (Civil & Environmental Engineering)
  • Thomas Borch (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Scott Shrake (Institute for Entrepreneurship)

Systems Perspective

Prior work by many teams have focused solely on water treatment. The approach here will be to look at the entire fresh and produced water use and delivery system to determine the optimal configuration that realizes the most optimal economic solution that does not adversely impact the environment.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

Several different disciplines will be integrated in this project, including economic analysis, thermal energy systems, plant sciences, and policy.

Project 14: Integrating Solar Energy into Dryland Agriculture – Innovation at the Food-Energy-Water Nexus

In low rainfall regions of the world, water, not land, is the resource most limiting agricultural production making precipitation management key to sustainable dryland agriculture. In contrast, solar energy generation, a renewable energy source that is most efficient in low rainfall regions, is land-use intensive. The substantial land requirement for solar energy combined with the “water not land” limitation of dryland agriculture can be synergized by using the area occupied by solar panels to harvest and redistribute rainfall – resulting in increased yields. Rainfall redistribution in dryland agriculture has the potential to permit growth of higher value crops which, when combined with reliable income from solar energy generation, reduces economic risk for land-owners, and rural dependency on fossil fuels. While this
novel agro-energy approach is conceptually appealing, there are many challenges to overcome.

These include:

  1. Understanding how rainfall redistribution from the co-location of solar panels with crops will alter soil moisture patterns, plant water relations and water use efficiency, plant growth and yield;
  2. Designing an efficient, low cost water collection and redistribution system utilizing commercially available solar panels;
  3. Conducting plant growth simulation modeling and/or economic analyses that integrated crop yield and energy production to assess the trade-offs associated with a range of solar panel-crop configurations.

This research project will lay the ground work for a new agro-energy paradigm in semi-arid regions – based on the principle that increasing both water-use-efficiency and the diversity of how solar energy is harvested , via both plants and photo-voltaic cells, can increase total yield (calories harvested as food/forage and energy) and the economic well-being of land owners.

Advisors

  • Alan Knapp (Biology)
  • Christopher Goemans (Agricultural & Resource Economics)
  • Allan Andales (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Jay Ham (Soils & Crop Sciences)
  • Meagan Schipanski (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Jesse Burkhardt (Agricultural & Resource Economics)
  • Mark Uchanski (Horticulture & Landscape Architecture)
  • Gene Kelly (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Melinda Smith (Biology)

Systems Perspective

In order to conduct the feasibility and design optimization assessments needed for advancing the science of agrivoltaics, a systems perspective that integrates research in water use, crop/forage growth, energy production, economic feasibility, and environmental sustainability is required.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

To move this agro-energy (also known as Agrivoltaics) approach from concept to practice will require a team that includes a wide range of disciplinary skills and perspectives. The project would enable a graduate student to gain some expertise in plant growth (biology), engineering and design, renewable energy, economics and modeling.

Project 15: Energy Intensity of Global Food Production and Water Use

It is clear that agronomic efficiency – measured by yield (efficiency of land use), nutrient recovery efficiency, greenhouse gas intensity, field-level water use efficiency, etc. – is greater for the developed world than for the developing world. Yet these efficiency gains come at the cost of increased energy inputs. Past global efforts to synthesize data on nutrient use efficiencies revealed how agricultural development has unfolded and what the future might hold. The overall goal of this project is to do the same for energy, with an emphasis on the energy requirements for irrigation.

The first step of this work has been to assemble data on energy use in agriculture (available on a per-country basis over time). Next country-level energy use data will be allocated to specific agricultural activities that require energy, including vehicle (tractor) miles for field operations, water pumping, buildings, harvest and storage, transportation, etc. The approach will apply Bayesian modeling framework like that used to allocate N fertilizer to different crops. The ultimate result will be a complete database on energy use by crop, by country, by year that can be used to assess patterns and trends in energy consumption associated with food production. Coupled with earlier analyses, this energy analysis will advance understanding of the full greenhouse gas impacts of changes in food production systems over time. The extent and type of irrigation infrastructure (surface water vs. groundwater) is critical for determining total energy use. National-scale data compiled by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s AQUASTAT database will be used, as well as global syntheses of subnational census and survey data, to obtain analyze trends in irrigation use by country and by crop. These data will allow analysis of how the overall energy footprint of food production is determined by variations in water management, climate, and crop choice.

Advisors

  • Rich Conant (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability)
  • Nathan Mueller (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability; Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Jordan Suter (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Systems Perspective

This project expands beyond our previous global synthesis work on N and N2O by adopting a broader systems perspective.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

Global syntheses can provide powerful insight, but often require making assumptions and estimates in order to accurately extrapolate from limited data. As a result, this project requires informed expertise from a variety of disciplines, including agronomy, animal science, agricultural engineers, and irrigation experts. As the assembled fertilizer databases have informed policy and economic decisions, the database resulting from this work offer opportunities for deep collaboration with the policy-makers and economists.

Project 16: Sustainable Development of Rice Bran at the Food-Energy-Water-Health Nexus

White rice feeds nearly half of humanity as a staple food, and the associated agricultural practices, inputs and co-products of rice-based food systems merit attention for impacts on climate, water, energy and food security. Sustainable rice bran product development innovations at the food-energy-water nexus started 10 years ago with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to support biomedical, animal and human studies. Compelling findings from those studies for this food waste to have health properties have led to the current research opportunity that lies in various stages of development across the following countries (i.e. Guatemala, Mali, Nicaragua, India, Kenya, Cambodia, Nepal, France and Brazil). This project focuses on vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children that are facing food and water insecurity coupled with chronic diarrhoea and poor health outcomes. Diarrhoea caused by unsafe drinking water results in nutrient malabsorption, which is a public health problem needing practical solutions in accordance with achieving sustainable development goals.

Ryan and colleagues embrace an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral research network approach to advance the development of rice bran as this is the world’s largest agricultural byproduct, and used as animal feed or wasted. This project will develop rice bran as an ingredient with social, sustainable enterprise opportunities across the supply chain. We will create and test heat-stabilization technologies, implement food and water safety testing protocols in local laboratories, and prototype a distribution plan for target product use in infant weaning and maternal-child feeding programs. Many countries face water scarcity, and a tremendous amount of water resources are directed towards rice crop production in irrigated and flood plain agricultural systems. Some areas have already begun integrating aquaculture into rice paddies as rice-fish co-production systems, yet impacts of agrochemicals, heavy metals and pesticides remain a concern alongside the need for standardized testing. Importantly, this project will further the post-harvest output and provide substantial value addition to the rice crop. The research infrastructure for this project spans agricultural rice production and post-harvest practices, food engineering and technologies, as well as health systems at the rural-urban interface.

Advisors

  • Elizabeth Ryan (Environmental & Radiological Health Sciences)
  • Kimberly Cox-York (Food Science and Human Nutrition)
  • Jan Leach (Bioagricultural Sciences & Pest Management)
  • Molly Lamb (Epidemiology)

Systems Perspective

This project integrates complex elements of the rice agro-ecosystem and targets populations that strive to operate with environmental sustainability when increasing food security and seeking to reduce food waste.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

This innovative approach to develop rice bran within the broader context of food-energy-water nexus issues is possible via the global co-training of students in highly engaged faculty teams from agriculture, engineering, public health and biomedical sciences.

Project 17: An Integrated Ecological and Social Approach to Conserving Plains Aquatic Ecosystems in Eastern Colorado

Dryland streams in eastern Colorado are home to many aquatic species, but their habitat has been greatly impacted by groundwater pumping from the Ogallala Aquifer for agricultural irrigation. The continued loss of aquatic habitat is imminent, but societal consequences of losing water and aquatic ecosystems are little understood. This is due partly to lack of charismatic aquatic species (e.g., trout in the Rocky mountain streams) in plains aquatic ecosystems, which have remained hidden from human’s attention. We posit that aquatic conservation of dryland streams in eastern Colorado requires an integrated approach that evaluates the ecological status and needs of aquatic species, and articulating why the aquatic ecosystems are important to humans. Fuller understanding of natural and social dimensions should inform water policy in this region, where both nature and humans reply on groundwater.

This project aims to evaluate ecological status of aquatic ecosystems using native fishes as an indicator, and quantify societal values of these aquatic ecosystems, using Arikaree River as a case study. Arikaree River, a tributary to Republican River, harbors fish assemblages including species of conservation concern and a segment of the river is located on The Nature Conservancy property managed for aquatic conservation among other objectives. Despite opportunities for conservation, river habitat in this segment has shrunk in volume due to groundwater pumping, and the river stops flowing by late summer when irrigation intensifies, leaving isolated standing waters for fish to occupy and survive. An invasive fish species (mosquitofish Gambusia affinis) has recently emerged as an additional threat to the already-stressed aquatic ecosystem. Other river segments have completely dried up, which provides an unfortuitous opportunity to investigate what it means for rural societies to lose water and aquatic habitat.

The selected PhD student will conduct interdisciplinary research on ecological and social dimensions of conserving plains aquatic ecosystems. The ecological part will use field surveys or lab experiments to assess species status and abundance, and address invasive species management (e.g., inter-specific competition). The social part will quantify values of aquatic ecosystems to humans, whether monetary or non-monetary, by interviewing local stakeholders (e.g., farmers, ranchers, environmental groups). The PhD student will engage in scientific communication with stakeholders and the general public, and outcomes of this research will advance a key food-water sustainability issue in dryland streams.

Advisors

  • Yoichiro Kanno (Fish, Wildlife, & Conservation Biology)
  • Jonathan Salerno (Human Dimensions of Natural Resources)
  • John Sanderson (Center for Collaborative Conservation)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (Colorado Parks & Wildlife)
  • Mike Quartuch (Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

Systems Perspective

Groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation is the root cause of aquatic imperilment in eastern Colorado. This conservation issue cannot be fully addressed or communicated unless we understand not only ecology of plains aquatic ecosystems, but also social dimensions that influence or are influenced by the very existence of the plains aquatic ecosystems.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The selected PhD student will conduct research at the interface of natural and social sciences, and will be trained to develop a balanced view of conserving aquatic ecosystems in eastern Colorado.

Project 18: Regenerative Agriculture as a Method to Build Ecosystem Resilience and Sequester Carbon in the Northern Great Plains Agricultural Region

The project will evaluate the impacts of regenerative agricultural management practices on climate resilience, soil carbon sequestration and soil health metrics, crop production and economic sustainability of cropland systems in the Northern Great Plains (NGP) region. The study will focus on the nexus of food production and water issues in the NGP region, made up of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. This region encompasses 24% of all US cropland and is the leading agricultural region for a number of major commodities, e.g., barley, spring wheat, cattle, dry beans, sunflower, etc. Water is the major crop-limiting factor through much of the region, which is subject to extremes of both drought and flooding, both of which are projected to increase in frequency with continued climate change. Many of the soils in the region have been degraded and depleted of organic matter as a consequence of conventional practices such as annual crop-summer fallow rotations and intensive tillage. Regenerative agricultural practices including high diversity cover cropping, no-till, agroforestry (windbreaks), rotation with perennial forage crops, and integrated livestock management have the capacity to increase soil organic matter content, improve water infiltration and water retention, and improve nutrient retention and recycling – all of which should increase system resiliency to projected climate changes and also contribute to CO2 drawdown.

The project will include farm-level soil measurements and farm surveys to compare convention vs regenerative practices as well as regional-scale model-based assessments of the impacts of management system changes on soil carbon removal and sequestration, soil health parameters and agroecosystem sustainability. We will select 10-12 farms across the region that have been practicing regenerative farming practices for at least five years. Based on land management practices prior to regen practice adoption, we will identify nearby operations that have continued “conventional practices” (which remain the overwhelming dominant management systems) but have similar climate, soil, topographic and land use histories as the regen farms. Georeferenced samples will be taken at each of the paired conventional-regen farms. Measurements will include soil organic matter and chemical properties (total organic C and N, inorganic C, particulate organic matter fraction (POM), mineral-associated organic matter fraction (MaOM), pH, available P) and soil physical parameters (bulk density, texture, aggregation, field infiltration rate). Simulation modeling will utilize the DayCent process-based biogeochemical model and the COMET-Farm analysis platform.

Advisors

  • Keith Paustian (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Meagan Schipanski (Soil & Crop Sciences)
  • Rich Conant (Ecosystem Science & Sustainability)
  • Dale Manning (Agricultural & Resource Economics)

Systems Perspective

The project will take a systems approach looking at soil-plant-water-nutrient interactions at the farm/agroecosystem scale, informed by field measurements of soil responses to management changes, and by ecosystem simulation modeling.

Interdisciplinary Aspects

The project will include both on-farm field-based soil/plant measurement, laboratory analysis and soil organic matter fractionation and ecosystem modelling at local and regional scales. We plan to conduct farm surveys and collect farm-level economic data to assess economic impacts of practice adoption. Additionally, the project will evaluate agricultural systems located on indigenous reservation land. Indigenous people of the Northern Great Plains may be more susceptible to the impacts of climate change due to reliance on subsistence economies, high rates of poverty/ unemployment, and connection to native plants and water sources.

Have an Idea?

CSU Faculty and Industry Partners interested in mentoring InTERFEWS trainees can propose research topics using the link below.