Preventing Water Wars

An interdisciplinary team of USF researchers investigates how urban development, power relations and water redistribution affect wetland change.



TAMPA, Fla. (April 19, 2010) – Statistics show that more than one-half of today’s global human population lives in cities, and the number is expected to continue to rise in coming decades. According to USF biologist David Lewis, that means another trend also is going to continue: the transfer of natural resources, such as water, to these growing urban areas, from somewhere else.


“In the United States, Sun Belt cities like Tampa are growing rapidly, but rapidly growing cities consume more natural resources than they produce,” says Lewis. “Urban ecosystems rely on the redistribution and concentration of resources from much larger rural areas. When it comes to water, for example, you could say that the majority of people get their water from someplace other than the area in which they live.”


Lewis says the phenomenon of water redistribution is a poorly understood, complex web of interactions among people with differing values, interests and priorities, the environment, local governments, resource suppliers, and regulatory agencies. Armed with a seed grant of $289,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), however, Lewis and a team of USF researchers hope to shed new light on the issue and how people develop policies and behaviors in response to the very environmental changes that they cause.


“We hope that the principles that emerge from this study help prevent the ‘water wars’ that often accompany urban growth,” he says.


A long-lasting round of “water wars” in the Tampa Bay area, for example, started in the 1970s when a rapidly growing Pinellas County and St. Petersburg increased the amount of water being pumped from neighboring Hillsborough and Pasco Counties. When residents in these rural groundwater wellfields began noticing environmental consequences, years of bitter dispute and litigation among residents, environmentalists, local governments and water supply and distribution agencies debate ensued. The debate eventually led to the creation of a Partnership Agreement and the establishment of Tampa Bay Water, a wholesale supplier of water to member governments.


Investigating the broad spectrum of consequences – ecological, social, political and geological – that have been occurring in the Tampa Bay area as the result of water redistribution requires the perspective of experts from multiple disciplines. “We want to better understand the political and social infrastructures that enable this phenomenon of water redistribution to occur, as well as the ecological and environmental consequences,” says Lewis, who is the project’s principal investigator.


The research team, therefore, includes social and natural scientists from five diverse academic units across the university. In addition to Lewis, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology, the team includes: Thomas Crisman, an expert in freshwater ecology; Rebecca Zarger, an anthropologist; geologist Mark Rains; geographer Fenda Akiwumi; Susan Bell, a professor of marine ecology; Shawn Landry, a research associate in the School of Architecture’s Florida Center for Community Design and Research; and Carl Trettin, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in forested wetlands.


“This project will use an interdisciplinary approach to investigate how social relationships facilitate the transfer of water from a rural to an urban area,” says Lewis. The team will examine how water redistribution changes both the social and ecological systems within the city and in the broader water-providing community.”


Biologists on the team, for example, will look at ecological changes in wetlands including the impact on fish, wildlife, plants and other species that make up complex food webs in areas often referred to as “biological supermarkets” because of the tremendous amounts of food they produce.


The relationship between groundwater pumping and hydrological changes to wetlands will be explored through the geology lens, including how the landscape is being altered in wellfield areas. “If you stick a straw in the ground, so to speak, and suck up the water, what are the repercussions of lowering that water table,” says Lewis.


Anthropologists and geographers will go door-to-door, speaking with residents from a cross-section of the three-county population being studied in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas. “For example, are the perceptions of a rural old-timer about nearby ecological change similar to those of his neighbor across the street living in a new development?” says Lewis. “Our objective is to compare the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors of diverse types of people across the water gradient,” says Lewis.


In addition, team members will also attend public forums to better understand the political power structures and relationships among suppliers, regulatory agencies and governments that create water distribution policy. They will interview key players such as resource managers and policy makers to determine if, and how, input from residents trickles up to regional policy-making.

And by using geographic information systems, experts in sustainable community design and development will study how urbanization changes the landscape around wetlands. Partnering with water utility and management organizations to analyze how the hydrology, plant community and organic matter respond to water distribution will hopefully lead to better informed decisions about future development and resource management.


Since water management and regulatory agencies often use wetland change as a litmus test of whether groundwater is being pumped too rapidly, the research conducted by the ecologists, hydrologists and geologists – called ecohydrology – will focus on localized effects of groundwater pumping in an area where it has historically taken place, namely wetland-rich areas in Pasco County. The social science research conducted by the anthropologists and geographers will focus on the entire water use gradient – from mostly water-consuming areas in the older metropolitan cores of Tampa and southern Pinellas County, to the water-providing areas of northern Pasco County.


The scientists will then integrate their findings.


“We’re going to link the ecology to the social science,” says Lewis. “The reality is that for urban growth to occur, resources to be used by the city must come from somewhere else, which will undoubtedly feel some consequences. We’re interested in what social structures allow this to happen, and what the ecological consequences are. How do those consequences fire people up and affect new policy? And then how does that new policy impact new perceptions and new consequences?”


It’s one way to not just fight – but prevent – a “war,” while meeting the needs of both people and the environment.


Story by Mary Beth Erskine

Video shot, edited and produced by Aimee Blodgett

and Mary Beth Erskine.


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.