Surprises, questions, and inspiration at the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

After a semester thinking about nexus issues in the Columbia River Basin followed by a week of experiencing it first-hand, UM BRIDGES Trainees were left with several key impressions… and a host of new questions.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for students was the sheer magnitude of the scale and range of nexus-related activities, issues, and science within the CRB. Seven percent of the US land mass is covered by the Columbia River watershed, with 14 dams along the main stem of the river, 11 in the US and three in Canada. As the UM Bridges Cohort caravanned through the basin, it was evident there are many successes, but many challenges, at what seemed the epicenter of the nexus.

The size of nexus-infrastructure matched the colossal size of the CRB watershed. Students were struck by the miles of irrigated agriculture stretching out to the horizon in the Yakima Valley, the huge Roza Irrigation Canal diversion, which was dwarfed by the third-of-a-mile-long Rocky Reach dam, which was in turn dwarfed by the mile-long, 550 foot-high Grand Coulee Dam.

But it wasn’t merely the colossal nature of infrastructure that was mind-blowing. It was also the range of scales at which one must consider nexus issues. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff were studying chemical interactions in the hyporheic zone along the Columbia River while Grand Coulee Dam used 12 pumps that each pushes over one billion gallons per day of that same river’s water to support irrigation. The Columbia Generating Station relied on sub-atomic particles to generate enough electricity to power two of the largest cities on the west coast, Seattle and Portland, with combined populations of more than 1.2 million people. Only a faint purple glow coming from the fuel storage pool at the nuclear power plant gave a hint to the immense power of nuclear fission – that and the knowledge that over an entire year, the plant powered so many homes but output only about three pounds of spent fuel, much of which could still be recycled to generate even more power.

The surprising scale of nexus issues in the CRB went beyond the dizzying physical spectrum from quarks to two-hundred-miles of irrigation canals and soil samples to ten-thousand-acre farms. The complexity of the social and policy aspects of the nexus were also awesome. The economic complexity alone was formidable. How does one balance renewable energy sources with fluctuating demand that does not result in negative power prices? How can water prices reflect impacts to salmon and ecosystems but still maintain affordable food supplies and keep farmers on the land they’ve known for generations? How can pricing mechanisms not distort reality leading to reduced sustainability and security? Do solutions come from engineering new physical structures or engineering new socio-political structures?  Or both?

And perhaps, most importantly, how do we as a society stop speaking past each other, acknowledge the past inequities and injustices, and finally come together in the name of providing secure, yet sustainable, food, energy, and water supplies for all people? The Yakama Tribe provided a powerful and inspiring example of how leadership, communication, and compromise can move us forward.  Rocky Reach Dam provided an example of how engineering can help us mitigate for past harms. Can the US, and the world, build on similar successes and find common ground beyond litigation and single view-point advocacy? Can we ensure that all voices are represented and a greater number of tradeoffs considered? Can we adapt our infrastructure or rethink how we manage systems? And can we do so in a way that does not compromise generations to come?

Overall, UM BRIDGES left the CRB with more questions than when we arrived. But we also left with a renewed motivation to lead with science and thoughtfulness as we pursue research and solutions at the water-energy-food nexus.