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State of the State’s Water Supply

We use it every day to brush our teeth, cook our food and irrigate our crops, but don’t often stop to think of its overall importance in our lives. Water, sometimes plentiful, other times scarce, is a vital resource to humans and the environment, but finding a balance that keeps the needs of both fulfilled is complicated, especially when combined with climate change concerns.

University of Maine Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Shaleen Jain realizes this and, focusing on the state of Maine, is researching how existing water policies fare in a changing climate. His research is funded by a $28,106 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey, with matching support totaling $44,458 from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Jain has looked at the New England region watershed to understand its hydrology and stream flow during the past half century. With the help of graduate students, he’s analyzed stream flow changes across the state from the St. John River Basin to smaller watersheds in southern Maine, and is using the information to see how the state’s recently created sustainable water allocation policy stacks up.

“The policy, which seeks to preserve the ecosystem services and water quality, is forward-looking and is very explicit in balancing the human and ecosystems both as users of water,” says Jain. “Our principal focus was to think about the adaptation considerations for water utilities, the ecosystem’s objectives, and effective implementation of this water allocation policy.”

Like most policies, water allocation strategies are based on assumptions, Jain says. This is difficult because standards are set using best estimates of hydrologic variability, which itself is changing.

How do scientists predict future needs and resources? Jain started by going back in time and conducting a systematic analysis of the changes in stream flow across New England for the last 50 years, looking at how seasonal changes in stream discharge have changed in magnitude, but also in when they change.

“In general, the flows in winter are going up, and so is the timing of spring snow melt. It’s coming earlier,” says Jain.

There has been a shift toward significant amounts of annual water supply occurring earlier in the spring, which causes a longer spring and summer low flow season.

“That can stress the ecosystem,” says Jain. “These lower flows in the summer also have the potential to cause higher stream temperatures and also impacts water quality.”

Given this, a key question for Jain is to be able to — location by location — understand the potential impacts for the communities that are reliant on specific water supplies.

Statewide, he has initiated work with about 40 water utility managers to obtain their views and information regarding the needs of their communities when it comes to the state’s changing hydrology. What kinds of vulnerabilities do they foresee? What are they already experiencing when it comes to water allocation and use issues?

For example, farming communities need to have access to water during their growing season, coastal tourist towns typically have peak water usages in the summer months while ski destinations have more needs during the winter.

Improper water allocation policies can result not only in an inability to supply water reliably, but also can have an adverse impact on the ecosystem and the economy of an area.

Jain now is in the process of developing a synthesis from his first round of research where he focused mainly on water quantity in the state.

“From that perspective, a key concern is having adequate water in the stream to support the ecosystem and dilute pollutants, and also ensuring adequate oxygen supply for the animals and plants in the water,” says Jain.

He also has secured additional funding from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Research Program to understand the links between surface and ground water, and what impact does climate change have in the state’s regional hydrology.

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