Optimizing for Water Equity in the Colorado River Basin; Public Opinions on Agriculture-Environment Dependence in the Western US, A Twitter Case Study

Baiotto, Teagan, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinn, Julianne, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Rogers, Hannah, University of Virginia

One of the hot topics of environmentalism today is water use. However, what often pervades this discussion is the data behind what uses the most water. Based on common talking points, you might expect lengthy showers or laundry to be the biggest users of water. While these are undeniably wasteful, agriculture is by far the largest user of freshwater on the planet. This means that for most people, your diet drives your water footprint, not the length of your showers. Agricultural water use is draining water reserves throughout the world. The American dust bowl is a historical example of devastation caused by over withdrawal of groundwater resources. Today, the Colorado River Basin and American West are facing significant water scarcity threats as a result of over withdrawal and increasing drought conditions.

My technical research project focused on water in the Colorado River Basin. Specifically, we sought to couple a multi-objective optimization algorithm with a water use/hydrologic model to identify alternative reservoir operating rules that would increase water equity to Native American tribal populations and environmental flows while maintaining access for other water users. Our results show that alternative operating policies at Lake Mead can not significantly improve water equity to tribal users, but can improve the volumes and consistency of environmental flows throughout the Lower Colorado River Basin while also improving consistency to other lower basin users. Based on our results and prior similar modeling, existing reservoir operating rules have consistently been shown to be non-optimal when considering a variety of objectives.

My sociotechnical research seeks to sample and analyze public opinions of water and agriculture related topics in the Western United States. Twitter data was used to sample publicly voiced opinions related to water shortages on the Colorado River Basin, opinions relating agriculture to water use and climate change, and views on veganism. The sample was taken during the 6 months following August 16, 2021 - the date the Bureau of Reclamation announced Tier 1 shortage operating conditions at Lake Mead on the Colorado River. By doing so, I hoped to gauge the relative importance of these topics to the public in the Western US and understand the views held by different social groups. My results show a relatively small response to the announcement of Tier 1 operating conditions at Lake Mead, a decision that will greatly impact Arizona farmers. They also show a small number of Twitter users commenting on agriculture, typically being critical of its known environmental harms at scale. Of all samples taken, discussion of veganism was the strongest in the Western US with most users concerned primarily about animal welfare and health, not water use or climate change.

Through these projects, I learned a lot about the relationships between water and society - both in how it impacts economies and livelihoods and how people view water use. As drought conditions worsen in the Western United States and water reservoirs continue to be depleted, many of the questions raised or implied in my technical and sociotechnical papers will be important for water users and managers to reflect upon.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Water, Equity, Twitter, Agriculture

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Technical Advisor: Julianne Quinn
STS Advisor: Hannah Rogers
Technical Team Members: Hania Abboud, Teagan Baiotto, Erin Baker, Christopher Weigand

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