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Researchers develop water index tool for the Arctic

Submitted by Carla Browning
Phone: (907) 474-7778

07/13/07

A new water vulnerability assessment tool created by University of Alaska researchers may help communities monitor and protect their water resources. The tool, the Alaska Water Resource Vulnerability Index, or AWRVI (pronounced R-VEE), is the culmination of a five-year project to collect and house existing data in one database. The tool is the first comprehensive water assessment tool focused on the Arctic.

Lilian Alessa, a researcher with the University of Alaska Anchorage and affiliate faculty with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Water and Environmental Research Center, is one of the primary developers of the project. She hopes communities will use ARWVI as the basis for making sound decisions about water resources.

"AWRVI is a contribution to empowering communities to manage resources on their own terms", said Alessa. "This has never been done at this [watershed] scale and never for the Arctic, one of the most rapidly changing environments on Earth."

To assess the potential risks to the fresh water supply, the index uses known data relating to the natural fresh water supply, precipitation and climate, river discharge, stream networks, water quality and permafrost distribution. The index also takes into account traditional and Western knowledge, community wealth and the importance of subsistence.

Once AWRVI has been applied, it generates a resilience score, which a community can use to assess the effects of environmental change on its social health and well-being, said Alessa.

"It [AWRVI] doesn't require new data collection. It's systematically structured so we can assess the hydrological watershed with all the information in one place," she said.

AWRVI is an offshoot of another project on the Seward Peninsula. Dan White, director of UAF's Institute of Northern Engineering and lead scientist on that project, said Alaska's water resources are vulnerable to change and some communities are more vulnerable than others. White says ARWVI, while a good start at a centralized index of water data, won't solve community water issues by itself.

"Tools only provide information to solve problems. Ultimately it's people who solve problems," said White. "What [ARWVI] gives you is some idea of what things one might prepare for."

Alaska's hydrology is a complex process and includes extremes from rain forests to polar deserts. Most scientists believe climate change and associated changes in precipitation, permafrost and weather patterns could adversely affect freshwater resources, especially in rural communities.

"AWRVI gives communities a mechanism by which they can assess their specific vulnerability," said White. "Managing Alaska's water resources requires a very flexible and local approach. You can't apply a single water management strategy in Alaska."

AWRVI was developed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center, UAF's Institute of Northern Engineering's Water and Environmental Research Center and the Resilience and Adaptive Management Group at the University of Alaska Anchorage, in cooperation with the Complex Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The authors have submitted a paper on the project to the journal Environmental Management and will be presenting AWRVI to communities both in Alaska and parts of the Pacific Northwest.

CONTACT: Lilian Alessa, associate professor, UAA and affiliate faculty with UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center at (907) 786-1507 or by e-mail at afla@uaa.alaska.edu or Dan White, director, Institute of Northern Engineering at (907) 474-6222 or by e-mail at ffdmw@uaf.edu.

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