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Research to reality: Connecting scientists to policymakers

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

The effects of climate change are already impacting individuals in the West. Drier seasons and regular droughts are affecting Utahns from farmers to snowboarders as changing precipitation patterns mean less rain and snow.

Seth Arens, a research scientist with Western Water Assessment and an expert in Utah’s climate cycles, will explore the future of water and drought in his GCSC seminar series lecture, “Planning for drought and climate change in Utah: working with resource managers to develop usable science,” on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Arens has a diverse resume, having studied biology at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the University of Utah. At the U, Arens did research on air pollution impacts in forested ecosystems in the Wasatch Mountains. After finishing his master’s degree at the U, Arens worked for the Utah Division of Air Quality for five and a half years as an environmental scientist, where he started a program researching and monitoring ozone pollution around Utah. He’s been working with Western Water Assessment for almost three years, using his knowledge of Utah to bring the latest scientific research to the people and organizations that need it most. “Rather than coming up with questions and researching them,” Arens explains, “Western Water Assessment works with decision makers, first identifying their needs and then seeking out solutions. “

Western Water Assessment is a University of Colorado-based research program that is funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program. “We seek to create usable science,” says Arens. “There’s often a disconnect between academic scientific research and the practical science that’s needed in resource management. Western Water Assessment serves as an intermediary between these groups.” He’s done this through work with organizations such as the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Salt Lake Public Utilities, and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “We’re ultimately helping them understand how future climate is going to affect how they operate.”

According to Arens, there has been much recent discussion and consideration of future water supply among planners in Utah, yet there has been less work done around drought, despite how interwoven the issues are. As drier conditions threaten to disrupt the region, the work Arens does to connect decision makers and organizations to the necessary water data is increasingly essential. NIDIS, or National Integrated Drought Information Systems, is a division of NOAA that focuses on drought research and works closely with Arens and Western Water Assessment on drought planning in Utah. Arens has also collaborated with the Utah Division of Water Resources in drought planning.

There’s no single direction ahead for Arens and his organization, who react to research and outreach needs as they arise. However, the GCSC is currently hosting Arens on the University of Utah campus, and this has opened exciting new research here. Arens is starting projects with Paul Brooks of the Geology and Geophysics department and Court Strong of Atmospheric Sciences. He’s also collaborated with Danya Rumore of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Center in the SJ Quinney College of Law.

Arens’ work addresses fundamental problems about the future of water in the West. “How do we prepare for a drought?” he asks. “If we have a drought that our water systems can’t really handle, what do we do about that?” If you’re interested to learn his answer, come to his lecture, Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

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