May 10, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 6

Rivers and Research: Crossing Divides

The history—and future—of the North State is inexorably linked to water. Just as the topography of our region was determined by the movement of water across the landscape, so is the economic and cultural shape of the region shaped by the forces of water. The North State is fortunate to have so many experts, many at CSU, Chico, committed to understanding water as a resource and contributing to an ongoing dialogue about water use in the state.

a iver snakes through open farmland, a bird's-eye-view

"The North State evolved mainly from ocean-type environments,” says Todd Greene, Geological and Environmental Sciences. “Any discussion on water here starts with the sea. The Chico area, as well as many places in the North State, had wonderful beachfront property around 85 million years ago.

“The northern Sacramento Valley has had a complex history of river-dominated environments punctuated by explosive volcanism and powerful mud flows off of volcanoes. Along the eastern portion of the northern Sacramento Valley, part of that history is contained in the two-to-three-million-year-old Tuscan Formation that makes up the cliffs of Upper Bidwell Park as well as the deeper groundwater supply under Chico. From Chico to Red Bluff thick volcanic-derived Tuscan deposits are regularly incised by foothill creeks as they create canyons and steep valleys.”

Greene has been working on mapping the distribution of the North State groundwater, especially in the Tuscan Aquifer. But he has recently taken on a cross-disciplinary challenge: working with economist Anita Chaudhry, Economics, to determine how the location and distribution of underground aquifers affects North State farmers—what crops they plant, whether they drill deeper for water, rely on groundwater or surface water. “There are a lot of agricultural economics issues that I am still learning about from Anita, and they have direct implications on the bottom line,” says Greene.

“Economics is fundamentally the study of human behavior when faced with scarcity of resources,” says Chaudhry. “The price of water has to reflect in some form, its scarcity—which it doesn't currently.

“There is plenty of fresh water available, but how we have used it is not compatible with long-term sustainability of this resource and therefore the long-term sustainability of our way of life. We need to rethink how in the 20th century we have allocated this resource. We need a 21st-century approach to water management that takes the limits of its availability seriously.”

Chaudhry and Greene are members of the Integrated North State Water and Land Change Working Group, which takes a cross-disciplinary approach to water research. The group is supported by the Center for Ecosystem Research.

Other members are Colleen Hatfield, Biological Sciences; Dean Fairbanks, Geography and Planning; Kathy Gray, Mathematics and Statistics; Eric Houk, Agriculture; Jake Brimlow, Agriculture; Ruth Guzley, Communication Arts and Sciences; Kelly Miller, graduate student; Jennifer Rotnem, managing director, Center for Ecosystem Research. They have been meeting every other week for two years, and says Greene, learning to communicate and collaborate effectively across disciplines.

The group is studying the sustainability of water and land use change in the North State and has submitted a $250,000 grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to support this research. “More specifically,” says Hatfield, “we are looking at the long-term economic forecast for agriculture, our economic base, under the competing demands for water. So it involves water, politics, economics, agriculture. If we get this grant, it’s going to be very exciting because it is going to give us the ability to work on this interdisciplinary approach.”

They also hope that this interdisciplinary research will also give the North State and Chico State an organized, strong voice in the community and state water dialogue, says Hatfield.

a river snakes through open farmland, a bird's-eye-view

And this dialogue will only be heating up, says Houk, an agricultural economist in the College of Agriculture whose research looks at how water supply affects both agricultural production and the North State economy. “In California, a majority of the fresh water supplies are located in the northern part of the state, while a majority of the water consumption is in the southern part,” he says.

“As both manmade decisions and policies and natural fluctuations (i.e., drought) continue to threaten Northern California water supplies, it is vital to have a better understanding of just how valuable water is to agricultural production and the Northern California economy," adds Houk. "Having a better understanding of how important water is to our agricultural industry and the entire North State economy will hopefully give our region a bigger voice in statewide discussions and help preserve water for an industry that recently produced over $600 million worth of agricultural products in Butte County alone.”

The working group’s organizing Center for Ecosystem Research is also broadening its focus to better reflect the array of projects—including those on water—supported by the center. It is in the process of a name change to Center for Water and the Environment, which Rotnem says both better indicates the direction of faculty research and more clearly communicates its mission to community members. [UPDATE, May 10, 2012: CER's name change has been approved by the Academic Senate. The center is now the Center for Water and the Environment.]

“One thing that has happened because of the name change—especially with the word ‘water’—is that there is a lot of excitement from across campus to participate in collaborative research,” says Rotnem. “It has become really clear to us that faculty from many departments and colleges are interested in both water and the environment.”

Other researchers on campus outside of the working group also study how water continues to shape the North State’s environmental, cultural, economic, and physical landscape. Eugenie Rovai, Geography and Planning and Social Sciences Program coordinator, looks at the potential impacts to communities in the North State due to groundwater transfers and water banking. Other recent work was related to the geography of disaster recovery in Humboldt County, the Bay Area, and Southern California after major events like earthquakes and flooding.

Don Hankins, Geography and Planning and Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve field director, focuses mostly on the environmental issues regarding water and managing riparian habitats. “Ultimately, our fate is based on our stewardship of the environment,” he says.  He also studies the indigenous traditional laws regarding resource management. “In California the tribes never gave up their water rights, so there are some interesting considerations of water with respect to tribes,” says Hankins. “One theme that emerges is that traditional laws inherently mandate proper stewardship and sustainability across environmental and social parameters.”

Many other faculty and staff work with water, both directly and indirectly—and soon the entire campus and community will be focusing on water issues next year. The 2012–2013 Book in Common is Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It by Robert Glennon.

“We hope that this book will encourage an informed, open, and reasoned discussion of how we in California will manage the critically important resource of water,” says President Paul Zingg. ■

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications


Illustrating the North State Landscape

a delta snaking through land, shot from the skya delta snaking through land, shot from the skyChuck Nelson has retired as director of the Geographical Information Center (GIC), but he still loves to work with maps. He uses his photographic and technical skills to create large-scale images of North State geographical features, including the ones of water used to illustrate this article. His Landscape as Art series includes scans of selected Northern and Central California aerial photographs—some used in GIC mapping projects and others downloaded from government agency websites.

Nelson uses both true-color and color-infrared images. True-color film closely approximates a scene as viewed by the naked eye. Color-infrared film picks up reflected infrared radiation. Vegetation appears magenta or red on color-infrared film.

At above left is a color-infrared image of an area of the lower Sacramento River near Knights Landing. “The river makes a series of bends in this area and these twists and turns remained when levees were built,” says Nelson. “The aerial is part of a series of air photos taken for a Sacramento River riparian vegetation-mapping project contracted by the State of California using false-color infrared film. I scanned this aerial and used Adobe Photoshop to enhance and crop the photo.”

At left bottom is a true-color cropped image of portion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. “The northern river is the Sacramento, and it joins the San Joaquin at Suisun Bay—Antioch is the city in the lower left corner,” says Nelson. “This image was taken from a California Department of Fish and Game website available to the public as a GIS file and is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Imagery Program flight. The entire state was flown and mosaiced into one seamless image. The mosaic is available in both true-color and color-infrared format. The mosaic was cropped and enhanced using Adobe Photoshop.”

"The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta includes a series of interconnected waterways or sloughs which were once a large marsh but were reclaimed as islands, similar to what the Dutch have done in Holland," he adds. "I attended Rio Vista High between 1964 and 1968. When I visited Holland, it was easy to figure out why my high school yearbook was called The Netherlands.“