Terrascope Freshmen Present 100 Year Plan for Water Useage in Western North America

By Terrascope Staff

Freshmen enrolled in Mission 2012 (subject 12.000) were given a daunting charge by Professor Sam Bowring at the beginning of the fall semester: devise a solution to the imminent water crisis in western North America, to make it possible to provide clean fresh water to that region for the next century and beyond. Students unveiled their detailed proposal on December 2 before an audience that included a panel of experts brought to MIT from Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The philosophy of the Mission class is to give the students full ownership of the problem and to determine the direction and pace of research. Working in teams, with support from graduate teaching assistants, undergraduate teaching fellows and a team of alumni mentors, students spent the semester exploring the dimensions of the problem and investigating possible solutions. Their final presentation proposed a complex, multi-tiered solution that emphasized altering people’s perceptions of water and economic policies that would encourage conservation. Their proposed solution can be found at: http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2012/finalwebsite.

At the December 2 event, they gave an overview of the proposal and defended it in front of the expert panel and interested members of the MIT community and the general public. After the presentation, the experts (Joe Barsugli, a Research Scientist specializing in climate dynamics at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Kenneth Seasholes, the Tucson Area Director for the Arizona Department of Water Resources, with responsibility for administration of groundwater rights, permits and rules; and Brian H. Hurd, Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business at New Mexico State University) probed the students’ knowledge and ingenuity during an extended question- and-answer session, and then the floor was opened to questions from the audience. The question and answer period lasted for more than 90 minutes and the panel focused in particular on the proposed implementation of a cap and trade system for water use.

Interviewed on December 8 on WMBR’s weekly show on environmental topics, TerraVoice, a group of Mission students spoke about their presentations. Huayu Ding said that she found it helpful that one of the panelists raised philosophical questions about the practicality of sustainability of resources as a goal: “[Directing us to this kind of thinking] helped us as beginning MIT students because we are developing the next generation of technology.  This contributed to our [thinking about our ability] to come up with a technology but also come up with preventions of harmful side effects [of those technologies] In addition to describing their project and conclusions, the students were asked about the overall experience of working on the project.  Carmen Chan said that the final presentation “gives you a sense of awe when you look at what you did. We did that!”  Elise Hens added: “Three months and we came out with this!”

Mission 2012 is a part of the year-long Terrascope program. In spring, students will continue their focus on water in Terrascope’s spring subjects, Communicating Complex Environmental Issues: Designing and Building Interactive Museum Exhibits (Subject 1.016) and Terrascope Radio (Subject SP.360). Over Spring break students will have the chance to make a field visit to the Southwest—to see first hand the issues associated with water use.