Project Overview

How can human societies feed 9 billion people? How can we supply enough water and energy to communities as people become more affluent and consume more per capita? What technologies and strategies will make it possible to manage resources more efficiently across the globe?   These questions motivate this research project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) program.

The project focuses on the Willamette River Basin, a 11,600 mi2 (30,000 km2) watershed with diverse land use and a history of intensive study and integrated modeling.  Within the context of this basin, this project asks: What are the tradeoffs and adaptation pathways that will help us satisfy competing ecological demands while also securing food, water and energy for a growing population?

The project is led by Oregon State University and involves collaborators from the University of Oregon, The University of Nevada - Reno, the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, the University of California - Davis, Freie Universitat Berlin, Oregon Freshwater Simulations, and Virga Environmental.  It is a four-year project that began in August 2017 and will end in July 2021.

The Food Energy Water Nexus

Food, energy and water are extracted from the environment, concentrated or otherwise refined before their delivery to the population for consumption.  Each discrete step of this refinement process, so-called stepwise resource management, requires material, energetic and knowledge-based inputs. Water is a critical material input to many of the refinement steps.  Energy is required for resource refinement, concentration and transportation. Knowledge, innovation, data and experience alters the necessary amount of material and energetic inputs for all steps. Each refinement step is also influenced by exogenous factors: laws, policies, climate, natural processes, population and economics.   The food-energy-water nexus is the set of interwoven stepwise resource management processes that collectively occur for the food, energy and water systems.


The research team is adapting and expanding a computer model of the Willamette system called Willamette Envision.  The model simulates natural environment processes, engineered water and energy systems, and resource management rules, and will be used to test explicit hypotheses regarding interactions between food, energy and water systems and the outcomes of different management strategies. The project is organized around five main hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1 - Forest Management and Snow

Lead: Anne Nolin, University of Nevada - Reno

Forest management strategies can improve snowpack accumulation and retention, thereby increasing natural water storage in the mountains. Forests can influence water storage and wildfires in the mountains by modifying the ways in which snowpack accumulates and melts. Trees intercept falling snow and the canopy interception depends on snowstorm temperature. In windy locations, trees reduce blowing snow and wind scouring. Lower elevation forests are warmer than high elevation forests and the warmer trees themselves lead to more rapid snowmelt. We hypothesize that forest management can serve as a snowpack retention strategy with potential benefits for forest health, water storage buffering, and fire suppression.  We will test Hypothesis 1 by varying climate and forest canopy structure within Willamette Envision and observing the resulting impact on the snowpack, stream flows and wildfires. Using a cutting-edge snow model newly linked to Envision, we will explore how snowstorm temperature, forest energy balance, and forest structure modify snow interception, maximum snow water equivalent, snow disappearance date, and snow cover duration.  We will then determine whether Envision’s hydrology model (Flow) predicts an increase in stream flow rates that can serve agriculturalists and whether Envision’s fire algorithm predicts fewer wildfires. 

Hypothesis 2 - Energy Systems Management

Leads: Greg Characklis, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and Jordan Kern, North Carolina State University

Future weather uncertainty, growing population, increased renewables penetration and more stringent environmental regulations will impact current reservoirs operations in their ability to balance flood control, power generation, water supply, and environmental stream flows.  The 13 federal dams in the Willamette River Basin, constitute a network that is directly connected to the larger Columbia system. The produced hydropower is managed and sold by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and a consistent part of its production is sold outside of the Pacific Northwest, to California. This research thread will connect modeling with Willamette Envision to the larger regional context and influences on energy demand and power production. It will explore the impact of streamflow pattern change, increased energy demand and renewables penetration on hydropower production. In particular, it will assess how global change will affect the dual challenge of managing oversupply and scarcity in a large integrated system relying on highly variable inflows, increasing renewables and environmental regulations. The project will also explore financial strategies to mitigate risk from these complex challenges.

Hypothesis 3 - Agrivoltaics

Leads: Chad Higgins, Oregon State University and Majdi Abou-Najm, University of California - Davis

Growers can conserve their local groundwater by shading a portion of their plants with photovoltaic panels.  Solar installations can sometimes compete with agriculture for the land resource, but there may be an engineered system in which agriculture and photovoltaic installations can co-exist for mutual benefit.  These systems are called agrivoltaic systems wherein excess solar energy incident on crop canopies is productively removed so that plants use less water.  The transpiration of plants cools the local microclimate surrounding the PV panels, making them more efficient.  What would happen if this technological approach were implemented within the Willamette valley? What are the potential changes in agriculture, to the hydrologic system and to the energy system?  This research thread will model agrivoltaic systems, operationalize them within the Willamette Envision code and evaluate potential changes as a result of agrivoltaic system installation.

Hypothesis 4 - Law

Lead: Adell Amos, University of Oregon

As decision makers determine how best to utilize their discretionary authorities inherent in existing law and policy impacts on the food, energy, water (FEW) nexus occur. By modeling some of these areas of discretionary decision making, observations can be made about the impacts of various legal and policy interventions in the FEW system.  Laws and policies convey to policy makers discretionary authority, the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. For example, at the federal level the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has considerable operational discretion in the management of the federal reservoirs on the Willamette System.  Our efforts on this project will test within Envision various scenarios in which that discretionary authority may be exercised.  As a result, we hope to examine questions deploying alternative models for the operation of the Willamette system and the impacts on the FEW nexus.  As another example, the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) has the discretionary authority to convert a set of in-stream water rights for the Willamette system that were originally part of Oregon’s minimum perennial streamflow system.  Our efforts on this project will test within Envision the likely impacts of both of those decisions. As a result, we hope to be able to answer questions like: If the OWRD exercises its authority to convert these water rights what is the impact on stream flow and temperature or elements of the FEW nexus?  We will conduct these studies in collaboration with the OWRD, USDA, the U.S. Department of the Interior, BPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, local irrigation districts, and the Oregon legislature. The OWRD will help us understand and model the processes and criteria by which they allocate unconverted in-stream water rights.

Hypothesis 5 - Stream Temperature

Future urbanization will shift water demand from agricultural applications toward urban applications which may increase river water temperatures and increase stress on native salmonid populations. As landscapes evolve, even in the context of approaches like Oregon’s state-based land use planning, the logic of real estate economics is more likely to convert agricultural land to urban uses than the reverse. When this occurs, future urbanization shifts water demand from agricultural towards urban uses, with the potential for corresponding effects on listed native cold-water aquatic species. Innovative approaches are underway in the Willamette basin to meet multiple types of future municipal and agricultural water needs by employing a variety of public and private strategies to achieve overall watershed improvement goals. The INFEWS project proposes, through simulation modeling, to compare and contrast a series of stakeholder-defined alternative futures assuming widespread application of such innovative approaches and to contrast these futures with business-as-usual approaches. We seek to explore promising combinations of strategies, policies and legal frameworks that might help residents of the Willamette basin manage the inevitable stream temperature issues.