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UL Lafayette research could influence Louisiana water policies

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The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has received two National Science Foundation grants to explore the connection between energy, water, and land use and how it relates to agricultural decision making.

A $96,645 grant will support researchers in their efforts to determine how energy, water, and food production intersect at a time when Louisiana is developing a comprehensive plan for water use. Faculty members in geosciences, sociology, chemical engineering, and business will collaborate on the NSF-funded project.

In addition, a $71,068 grant will support civil engineering faculty members who will propose ways students can learn to tackle problems of competing food-energy-water resources by taking an interdisciplinary approach.

“Important water policies for Louisiana will be shaped over the next few years. Now is the exact right time to do this project. Any scientific insights in this area will be valuable,” said Dr. David Borrok, director of the University’s School of Geosciences.

Water is used to produce food and energy. When water is scarce, decision makers must choose how and where it’s best used. They calculate the amount of energy use in food production statewide. They look at the energy costs of irrigating crops and explore whether farmers can use more surface water than groundwater and determine its cost.

Stakeholders, such as farmers, regulatory agencies, and economic development organizations, use tools like these to analyze food-energy-water relationships and determine optimum crop planning and water sources for agricultural operations.

Climate changes and increased demand are beginning to stress food-energy-water systems in places like California and the Southwest, leading to competition for natural resources.
“Understanding these systems is becoming critical for sound policy development and the well-being of humankind,” Borrok said.

“We will calculate and analyze footprints for energy, water, and land use associated with irrigation and fertilizer use for food production. Through this work, we expect to build a geographic information system-based tool where food, energy, and water relationships can be evaluated.”

Undergraduate curricula lack the content and resources that address the complexity of food-energy-water systems, according to Dr. Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL Lafayette.

He will collaborate with scientists at Columbia University and Sandia National Laboratory to improve instructional material. Their goal is to prepare a next-generation workforce that understands the global complexities of food-energy-water systems and the stress that each system imposes on the other.

“We will develop and propose web-based learning modules for students so they’re prepared to understand and manage complex food-energy-water interdependencies,” Habib said.

NSF awards grants for research and education in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering.