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ISSE Seed Project: Initiative for Food, Water, Energy (IFWE)

Team: Thanos Papanicolaou and Christopher Wilson, Civil and Environmental Engineering

2014-2015 Report

Ever-increasing demands from urban, agricultural, and industrial sectors are spreading thin available water resources, resulting in more frequent shortages. These changes in demand can be significant, especially in adjoining urban and agricultural areas, which are increasing in the Southeast.

To better prepare ourselves for potential problems at the nexus of food-water-energy systems, we have developed an organized research unit on campus called the Initiative for Food, Water, and Energy (IFWE). IFWE is orchestrating like-minded UTK scientists and engineers, with modeling and observational expertise, to achieve the following goals: (1) enhance understanding of the nature-human couplings within complex food-water-energy systems to assess systems-level responses under different market and climate stressors, and (2) develop an integrated network of earth and human observation systems to collect water quality and quantity information at unprecedented scales.

We have established six cross-disciplinary thematic areas (see figure) to accomplish these goals. In addition, we will work with centers on campus, like ISSE and CEB, towards developing smart sensors for assessing food-water-energy interactions across different spatial and temporal scales. For this research, we must re-examine how our systems respond to collective changes in climate, ecology, economics, and policy, as well as how we interact with the natural world. It is not enough that this re-examination is based on sound science, but it must also incorporate multiple points-of-view to ensure that the overall analysis is integrative.

Progress in integrated modeling will offer new ways to capture interactions between decision-makers and natural resources, as well as the level of spatial variability, in more detail than individual models. Advances in collecting micro-level and interaction data (implementing conservation practices with champion farmers, focus groups, social networking apps, choice experiments, soil erosion, and carbon storage measurements) may help specify theoretically solid and empirically justified adaptive decision rules and evolution of stakeholder attributes.

The data and models produced as part of this research will be made available to resource managers to help them understand the long-term effects of alternative management strategies. Research team members will work with these managers to help them use these models and interpret the results properly. IFWE will facilitate this research to equip us better for managing our critical resources in response to the challenges ahead.

Building policy to promote sustainable outcomes across the food-water-energy nexus requires an understanding of how people interact with and value the natural systems that sustain life. This research will provide an understanding of why different stakeholders respond, or fail to respond to changing conditions, new opportunities, and new threats to long-term sustainability. This study will also enhance our understanding of how different management strategies will affect resilience, adaptability, and sustainability under dynamic natural and human forces in representative watersheds of the Southeast.

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