To understand the importance of freshwater, we need look no further than the current map of drought in the western United States. California is in the grips of an extreme multi-year drought, and farmers and ranchers are facing critical water shortages that affect the nation’s food supply.  Here in Washington we are more fortunate in that we are “only” in a moderate drought, but are nevertheless concerned about how low snowpack will impact our water supply and wildfire in the coming months.

U.S. Drought Monitor
Anthony Artusa, NOAA/NWS/NCEP/CPCCalifornia

Pure and simple, freshwater is the key to life and driver of our society. It fuels basic biological functions and essential societal processes—generating energy, processing waste, and underpinning agriculture and industrial processes. This means that addressing freshwater issues is inherently interdisciplinary, combining knowledge from fields such as biogeochemistry, hydrology, soil science, ecology, and climate science. With an increasing global population and accelerating development comes an increasing demand for water. Understanding and managing freshwater is more crucial now than ever.

UW is stepping up its effort to more effectively bring our scientific understanding of freshwater to bear on complex freshwater issues. With support from the Provost’s office, the College of the Environment, University of Washington-Tacoma, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering are collaborating on an interdisciplinary Freshwater Initiative. By recruiting new faculty members and connecting them with our deep bench of faculty expertise, we are accelerating the understanding of freshwater dynamics leading to more robust solutions to local, regional, and global issues.

The Freshwater Initiative supported the recruitment of three new faculty members in the past year. David Butman will join the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) this coming fall, bringing a wealth of expertise in the role of aquatic and estuarine systems in the global carbon cycle. We are also thrilled that Faisal Hossain has joined CEE with a joint appointment at UW Tacoma.  Hossain’s research focuses on the use of remote sensing to provide decision-relevant understanding of the interactions of water, climate, and humans, especially in resource-poor nations.  Hossain is also passionate about communicating his research through the media as well as film.

 Fishing boats like this are common on the Mekong Delta, a dynamic ecosystem that supports over 50 million people.
Fishing boats like this are common on the Mekong Delta, a dynamic ecosystem that supports over 50 million people.

Our third freshwater initiative faculty hire was Gordon Holtgrieve, assistant professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. I had a chance to catch up with Gordon in January, the day before he returned to his field site in Cambodia.  In one of his major projects, Gordon and his lab are characterizing the food web in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and part of the Mekong Delta. The lake is a critical resource for the Cambodian people who consume over 300,000 tons of fish each year from this lake alone.  Gordon uses state-of-the-art isotopic analyses to track nutrients through the chain of consumption from phytoplankton through fish to human consumption. His baseline studies will be particularly important in evaluating impacts of proposed hydropower projects in the Mekong Delta.

Rice is a food staple in countries like Bangladesh, which is dependent on the delivery of clean freshwater for a useful crop.
Rice is a food staple in countries like Bangladesh, which is dependent on the delivery of clean freshwater for its crop.

The intimate link between water and food is also explored by Rebecca Neumann, assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering and part of the Freshwater Initiative.  Rebecca alerted me to a new aspect of the arsenic in groundwater problem in Bangladesh, namely the potential for arsenic to accumulate in rice grown in contaminated water.  Rebecca and her lab map the flow of oxygen, iron and arsenic in and around the roots of rice plants. She shared some good news: microscopic iron oxide coatings on roots appear to prevent arsenic absorption by the rice plant.  She is currently funded to examine the impacts of climate change on these dynamics, asking the critical question of food quality will change with global warming and what role might freshwater play in that question.

In the College of the Environment, we collaborate broadly to tackle issues of high societal importance. Freshwater is nothing less than a vital resource; through examining the physical processes and social complexities around fresh water, we are developing insights and solutions for more sustainable use of our planet’s water supply.


Lisa Graumlich
Dean, College of the Environment
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor