Optimizing for Water Equity in the Colorado River Basin; Strategies Employed by Cancer Alley Advocates to Pursue Environmental Justice in Their Communities

Weigand, Christopher, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Quinn, Julianne, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Norton, Peter, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Land use planning grows increasingly relevant, particularly as its outcomes have disproportionate impacts on minority and underrepresented participant groups. The technical thesis seeks to preserve the environment and provide protection for vulnerable water users by recommending reservoir operating rules for the Colorado River Basin. The STS thesis explores the strategies utilized by community advocates in Cancer Alley, Louisiana to combat the corporate pollution which fills their communities and sickens their neighbors. The technical and STS theses are united by their emphasis on pursuing environmental justice and ensuring that traditionally neglected stakeholders have a say in land use decisions which impact them.
The technical thesis details the utilization of an optimization model to identify Lake Mead reservoir operating policies which best account for the needs of water users and the environment. In particular, the technical project considers how to allocate sufficient water to vulnerable users such as Native American tribes and the environment. An operating policy establishes water shortage levels and, at each of those levels, the amount which outflows from the reservoir will be decreased. To achieve robustness, the model averages simulated water flows across eight climate scenarios. The team prioritized certain objectives in the model such as water flows to tribal users and flows to Mexico which serves as a proxy for environmental health.
The model output numerous non-dominated reservoir operating policies, reflecting the complex tradeoffs between the objectives considered in the model. The team identified which policy best addresses each objective and performed a sum of least squares analysis to identify a policy which serves as a reasonable compromise for the desires of the relevant user groups. Interestingly, the policy which is the best compromise for all users is also the policy which maximizes water flows to Mexico, and was the clear policy recommendation of the project. The tradeoffs experienced in the analysis exposed the inherent complexity of land use planning decisions and the challenge of accounting for the needs of all user groups.
The STS thesis seeks to answer the question of how environmental justice groups in Cancer Alley advocate to protect their communitites from the adverse effects of corporate pollution in the region. The thesis posits that these groups primarily did so through various grassroots efforts centering on the use of citizen science to prove the pollution faced by their communities. Using an Actor Network Theory model to understand the interrelationships and incentives present in Cancer Alley, the thesis establishes a baseline understanding of the context in Cancer Alley. Through news articles and testimony via the advocates’ websites, the thesis investigates the steps taken by these groups to fight against the pollution in their communitites.
The STS thesis found three broad categories of action in which Cancer Alley advocates engage to combat pollution. The advocates lead efforts to spread awareness of the situation and gather allies, conduct citizen science, and bring lawsuits against the polluting corporations and the government. Of these actions, citizen science is the most crucial as it provides the communities with reliable, quantifiable proof of the harm done by the pollution. Although the communities have achieved mixed results, their strategies, particularly citizen science, give an actionable roadmap for environmental advocates to adapt in the pursuit of their respective goals.
Although the particulars of land use planning advocacy differ, the efforts are unified by their motivation to protect vulnerable groups and enact environmental justice. Due to the similar motivations and goals, advocacy groups often use similar methods such as citizen science to achieve their ends. As a result, it is helpful and, in many cases, essential for groups to build upon the successes of each other and adopt the strategies which have proven successful for other groups such as the communitites in Cancer Alley and the Colorado River Basin.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Actor Network Theory, Cancer Alley, Colorado River Basin, Citizen Science

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Julianne Quinn
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Hania Abboud, Teagan Baiotto, Erin Baker

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