STEM Principles and Sustaining Water Resources in the Truckee Meadows

By Laine Christman, Resource Economist and Conservation Supervisor for Truckee Meadows Water Authority. Laine Christman holds a B.A. in Environmental Policy Analysis and a M.S. in Resource Economics from the University of Nevada, Reno.

While most of the Earth is covered in water, fresh, drinkable water is relatively rare (only about 0.05 percent is potable). Here in the Truckee Meadows region of Northern Nevada, most of our drinking water arrives as snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains. As the snowpack melts, the runoff flows down into lakes and streams and ends up in the Truckee River where a portion is diverted, treated and delivered to local homes and businesses.

As a resource economist and supervisor of the Conservation Department at Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), my job is to help ensure our local water resources are sustainable over time. And, because the way people use water can dramatically impact its long-term availability, a large part of my work focuses on educating our customers about making the most of this precious resource. Teaching people how to conserve water is very rewarding because, at the end of the day I know I am making a positive difference in my community.

How can STEM principles help sustain water resources?

Science, technology, engineering, and math form the backbone of how TMWA manages our water resources and ensures they will be available for future generations. A scientific understanding of the physical process by which water moves through the watershed is essential to meeting the community’s water needs over the long term. Questions like “How much water will be produced from this year’s snowpack?” and “How much water do we expect will flow down the Truckee River this year?” and “Are we entering a drought period?” can all be answered by using hydrologic principles to model both short and long-term water availability. And engineering is required to design, build and maintain the infrastructure needed to deliver treated water to customers.

But that’s only part of the equation. Once we gain an understanding of how much water we have available to deliver to customers, we must then investigate how that water is being used by our customers. To do this, I rely on technology. I gather millions of data points on monthly water consumption from over 124,000 water meters throughout the Truckee Meadows. These meters track water consumed by households and businesses (much like an odometer measures the miles driven in a car). I analyze the data by writing programs in a software package called Stata that compiles the information, analyzes it, and exports the results to Microsoft Excel or other applications for further review and reporting.

Using mathematical methods within the software, I can use the data to paint a detailed picture of how water is being used and what opportunities may exist for improving efficiency and reducing waste. The data show how much water TMWA customers have used in the past as well as water consumption patterns over the course of the year. For example, people use four to five times more water in the summer than in the winter months. Water usage increases when people begin to irrigate their turf-grass and landscaping during the warmer months. Using statistics, I can calculate average water usage by various customers such as single-family households or commercial customers. Those statistical measures allow me to better understand customers’ behaviors. For example, I can investigate how average water usage changes over time. I use this information to implement conservation programs that educate people on how to use water more efficiently and waste less water in their daily lives. I can also use this information to predict how much water will be needed in the future to serve a growing population. This ensures water in the Truckee Meadows is sustainable now and for years to come.

Are you interested in a career in resource economics?

If you feel this field is something you are interested in, please click the links below to learn more about applied research related to natural resources and local education opportunities.

University of Nevada, Reno – Economics, Society and Natural Resources has information on economic research applied to a wide range of natural resources including water resources.

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension – Natural Resource Program has a lot of great information on programs designed to educate people on various natural resource and water-related issues within Nevada.

Do you want to learn more about water conservation?

Follow the links below to learn more about where our water comes from and how to conserve water in your daily life.

Truckee Meadows Water Authority’s Conservation website discusses the importance of water conservation in the Truckee Meadows and hosts all sorts of links to conservation programs.

Check out TMWA’s Smart About Water website for cool facts and stats about water and how we use it.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense website provides information on water-efficient fixtures, how people can use water efficiently and has great resources for educators and students alike.