Project SAGE: SAHRA floods the zone

Aug. 26, 2009 -- The concept behind The University of Arizona's Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas, or SAHRA, associate director Gary Woodard explained, is to bring together "multidisciplinary teams to look at very large-scale issues"...

• SAHRA, which stands for Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas, is one of the lead interdisciplinary groups studying water issues at the UA

By Lew Serviss
Aug. 26, 2009 -- The concept behind The University of Arizona's Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas, or SAHRA, associate director Gary Woodard explained, is to bring together "multidisciplinary teams to look at very large-scale issues."

When the National Science Foundation funded the organization, "even they admitted that this is the most breathtaking range of disciplines that they've ever had in one center," he said. "When we started we had hydrologists, biologists, chemists, groundwater modelers, surface water modelers, economists, water law, civil engineers -- extremely broad."

SAHRA scientists and staff fan out when a water manager or public entity brings a water issue forward.

"The idea is that the scientific understanding, the models, whatever we produce -- we want very quickly to be used by the policymakers," Woodard said. They can develop models that mangers and public officials can use to change variables and scenarios and estimate results.

"These kinds of models are really useful for bringing together the hydrology, the economics, the social science and showing how everything's connected."

One of the organizing themes for SAHRA work is the changing nature of land cover. Woodard says a result of surging carbon dioxide levels is that trees are pushing out grasslands, with major implications for runoff to surface waters and recharging of groundwater.

Another key point is dwindling March snowfall and the resulting quick-melting snow pack. This leads to flash floods and less water supply into the summer.

A third area of focus is "water banking, water leasing, water marketing to make the limited water supply we have go farther," Woodard said. This can be achieved by anticipating water supply with sophisticated monitoring and persuading farmers to switch crops or not to plant all of their fields.

They can also ferret out data spread among separate databases around the state. "We've made the data a lot easier to get your hands on than it was before," Woodard said. "Not just for researchers, but for water managers, consultants, anybody."

One simple request came to find a dozen volunteers in the Sierra Vista area to track rainfall. Could his team could put together a little Web site so they could upload the data?

"We started developing this thing," Woodard said, "and we tested among ourselves and our friends and the next thing we knew, it's like Oh God, we got 80 people in Tucson area and we got dozens in Sierra Vista. We might as well make this something anybody can join.

"We're up to 1,856 people, mostly in Arizona. And then we realized, there are these people who don't have a backyard gauge but they'd like a better idea of how much it rained in their neighborhood without having to put in their own gauge. So we created this other system where you go onto our site, you give us your street address and your email address and you tell us the range -- within a mile or whatever -- and then whenever it rains close to you, you get an email sent to you saying it rained close to you. Here's the minimum and maximum amounts. Click here and you get a customized Google map centered on your address showing the nearby rain gauge totals."

To date, 2,600 people subscribe to the service, Rainlog.org

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