A major challenge the world faces in the 21st century is sustainable access to adequate water. Sustainable use of water requires community involvement to reach a workable outcome in the face of numerous tensions that can develop because of conflicting needs and values. It needs a combined effort by social and natural scientists, engineers, water managers as well as the broader community, that is, all stakeholders in water supply. Changing climate, demographics and economic demand add to the challenge by presenting a moving target for sustainable access to adequate water that often involves complex, contradictory messages to the public. Resolving these disagreements and moving forward to cohesive planning for sustained water resources with community support requires sustained co-development of knowledge and possible solution to the problem by all interested parties listed above in an environment that promotes co-exploration of the social and natural science processes involved.

Our project combines research with community participation to address comprehensively these challenges through a three-pronged approach: iterative participatory modeling (IPM), agent-based modeling (ABM) of human decisions and physical modeling of watershed processes. IPM works to elicit community values and interests as well as to provide a basis for co-exploration of relevant data to build a knowledge base that recognizes where confidence and uncertainty are both present in the available information/data. Agent-based hydrological modeling provides a means of exploring how various community players (agents) interact with each other and with the water management system in the face of changes in climate, demographics and economics.

The objective of the three-pronged effort is translational science fostering use-inspired scientific research by engaging members of a watershed community in exploration of water-management decision options in a modeling environment accessible to all participants. The program provides a prototype for coupling natural and human processes in a dynamic, evolving framework that can flexibly address the ever-changing challenges of sustainable water management around the world. The research provides an opportunity to bring together three often independent areas of research. The proposed methodology creates a means to address other complex problems facing societies today. Understanding the effectiveness of this three-pronged approach is a knowledge gap we seek to fill.

Broader impacts are integrated throughout the project because of the iterative participatory modeling. In collaboration with the non-governmental organization Prairie Rivers of Iowa, the main IPM activity will be involving stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, including representatives of city residents, city officials, farmers, businesses, and environmental groups. A key outcome of the proposed work is to engage these “citizen scholars” in the modeling and increase understanding of watershed issues and diverse concerns and viewpoints. Using IPM-constructed ABM test beds, with different agents representing different interests, we can encourage the IPM participants to use the simulations to explore whether common ground exists among these interests, perhaps in a priori unexpected ways.

The program provides a prototype for coupling natural and human processes in a dynamic, evolving framework that can flexibly address the challenges of sustainable water management around the world. The collaborations between members of the project team and colleagues in other parts of the world provide a basis for extending our work globally to other watersheds.