Computer Program Designed to Bridge Gap Between Scientists, Water Policy Makers

A computer visualization tool developed by Arizona State University (ASU) researchers can simulate the effects environmental and policy factors have on the future of water availability in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The program, called WaterSim, was demonstrated on Feb. 17 by ASU geography professor Patricia Gober at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

WaterSim takes a cue from the SimCity video games, Gober said. It allows users to adjust factors such as population growth, climate change, land development, technological innovations and policy decisions and see how they could affect water supply in central Arizona. It was created by researchers at ASU's Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), which studies the interplay between climate and water management.

"Complex events happening in the world's future will trickle down to have an influence on Phoenix," Gober said, explaining that factors such as climate change in other parts of the world can have dramatic effects on the region. "WaterSim helps break up the complex systems into smaller pieces so researchers can study them in greater detail."

Gober and DCDC researchers began working on the WaterSim project in 2005. Their goal was to bridge the gap between policy makers and scientists, allowing both sides to better understand each other.

WaterSim developers created a visual interface that allows users to simultaneously view maps, graphs and numerical data that reflect a variety of regional environmental and policy conditions. As users manipulate those conditions, they can see how those decisions would affect water availability in central Arizona. For example, as Phoenix's population increases, more water will be needed. WaterSim also allows users to visualize futures with rapid or slow economic growth, more efficient or stagnant technology, and everything in between, with an emphasis on local solutions for achieving sustainability.

The results are "storyline narratives," Gober said, about potential environmental futures in Phoenix. These narratives take into account global carbon emissions, temperature and rainfall changes, technology forecasts, energy consumption, and population and economic growth rates to produce an image of central Arizona's future -- and the water needed to sustain it.

Gober said that even though there is no way to know if these narratives would play out exactly as the program predicts, policy makers should take advantage of the best information available.

"It's a classic problem in climate change science," Gober said. "If you wait around for complete certainty, it could be too late. The conditions will have already changed, and some options might already have disappeared."

Earlier this year, WaterSim debuted to 120 water managers who convened in ASU's Decision Theater, a virtual reality facility focused on examining policy issues. The response was overwhelmingly positive, Gober said.

"People see it and tell us that it feels right," she said.

While WaterSim is specifically tailored to central Arizona's water situation, Gober would like scientists to be inspired to use similar tactics to effect change in policy discussions unique to their regions.

"We want WaterSim and the process that built it to be replicated elsewhere," Gober said. "Our goal is to change the way policy decisions are made."

Patricia Gober:

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