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Environment / Sustainability

Caring for the lifeblood of our planet

June 15, 2009

Water rules our existence from the inside out: Our blood alone runs 95 percent water. But it's nothing new that our survival depends on water. Centuries ago, Aristotle told us about a Greek philosopher who declared that the earth rests on water.


In a grand sense, that’s true – imagine the continents floating in a vast globe of water. Remove the water, and not a single organism would exist. This simple element, in fact, is one sign of possible life on other planets that scientists continue to search for.

Water isn't infinite

Only recently have we humans realized that water isn’t infinite, that it can be misused and polluted. Reagan Waskom, 22-year veteran of Colorado State and longtime member of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, is well aware of the issues, and he’s just as aware of potential solutions. He’s director of the Colorado Water Institute, or CWI, a fixture at CSU since 1965 that provides critical links between water researchers and users in Colorado.

However, the institute’s programs and outreach aren’t limited to Colorado. Waskom not only works with an array of campus departments from the sciences to the humanities, but he also collaborates with Jim Cooney, vice provost for International Affairs, on water research activities taking place in countries all over the world.

More than a billion people don't have access to clean water

“Some of the water challenges facing international communities are similar to what we face in Colorado and the West, such as rapid growth, limited supplies, and clashes between human and natural needs,” Waskom says. “But in considering the big picture, the numbers are very sobering: More than a billion people don’t have access to clean water, almost two-and-a-half billion people have no access to sanitation, and two million children die each year from waterborne diseases.”

(Photo: A woman washes her daughter’s hair on the bank of the Cauvery River at Nimishamba Temple in Mysore, India, July 2008).

To address these and other critical issues, CWI produced a strategic plan to move forward with international water research, education, and outreach. The plan was based on an Internationalization Plan that Cooney and his staff adopted in 2006.

“The clear message is that CSU’s efforts in water research are prime examples of what a land-grant university can and should be doing in a globalized world,” Cooney says. “But internationalization isn’t just a single formula – it has to take place at every level of the University and with partners throughout the world.”

Water research at CSU since late 1800s

Colorado State faculty have been in the thick of water research since the University was founded in the late 1800s. “CSU has more than 130 faculty members interested in water policy,” says Evan Vlachos, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The other major university in the United States that comes close is MIT, and they have about 90 faculty.”

(Photo: Civil Engineering Professor Ralph L. Parshall conducting research in August 1946.)

Interim President Anthony Frank recently noted that CSU is reinvigorating its international presence under Cooney’s leadership, an effort that emphases the increase of worldwide research collaborations and student and faculty exchanges. “Colorado State has a long, rich history of international connections, including such monumental examples as our longterm water project in Egypt that involves people and departments from across the University,” Frank says.

Water projects across the globe

“CSU faculty have worked on every continent on the planet and many countries,” Waskom says. Current water projects include research and teaching activities in Latin America, Africa, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.

The College of Business is involved in outreach too, through its recently introduced Global, Social and Sustainable Enterprise master’s degree program. Students learn to develop sustainable business solutions to challenging international development issues. GSSE students recently traveled to Ethiopia and Bangladesh to help bring water to people who need it most and who would benefit from irrigation-related businesses.

The long view of water, whether it’s snow or a liquid rushing through irrigation canals or out of taps, is ultimately a global perspective – and it’s humanity’s charge to take care of this finite resource. Waskom, speaking in International Educator magazine, noted how Colorado State is known worldwide for water management in stressed systems.

Take Colorado issues and apply them globally

“In Colorado, we’re a storm or two away from drought every year,” Waskom says. “What we learn about water stress – whether irrigation management or urban water supply or environmental services – is translatable to water-stressed environments of the world. We take Colorado issues and apply them globally. And it’s a two-way process – we learn from them as well.

“We’re at the point in the world where available fresh water resources have been developed. Now, rather than looking for new resources, we’re trying to figure out how to share existing ones.”

(Photo:  Reagan Waskom by the Cache la Poudre River in LaPorte.)

Colorado’s water

  • Eighty-nine percent of Colorado’s naturally occurring lakes are found at altitudes above 9,000 feet.
  • Each year, 15 million raindrops strike each square foot of land in the Denver area.
  • The maximum 24-hour snowfall in the United States was 75.8 inches at Silver Lake in the mountains west of Boulder on April 14-15, 1921.
  • In May 1935, 24 inches of rain fell in six hours near Kiowa.
  • More than 9,000 miles of streams and 2,000 lakes and reservoirs are open to fishing in Colorado.
  • The deepest natural lake in Colorado is Grand Lake at 265 feet.
  • Riparian habitat makes up less than 3 percent of the land in Colorado but is used by more than 90 percent of the wildlife in the state.
  • From 1820 to 1846, the Arkansas River was the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

– National Science Teachers Association

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Written by Paul Miller and originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Spring 2009.