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Crop production faces extinction in Colorado, can video gaming be the answer?

Written by André Dozier, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Credit: Jim WarkFlying out of Denver International Airport reveals a landscape on the eastern plains of Colorado rarely seen by most people in the rapidly urbanizing region. Lush fields of corn, sugar beets, wheat, alfalfa, and even sunflower contrast the vastly dry, brown landscape. Availability of river water supplies is essential to the existence of these farming communities. While mountain streams supply water from melted snow to Colorado and many other western states, river water supply is already over-allocated. Rapidly growing cities vie for water to support their ballooning populations, purchasing water from farmers because new supplies from reservoirs or other basins are very difficult to procure. If this trend continues, farming communities may be crippled almost to the point of extinction.

What if I told you that you can help to find an answer to this dilemma (and others like it) by playing a video game?

Colorado’s Water Plan, a stakeholder-driven effort at managing Colorado’s vital water resources (link), aim to stop the decline of agriculture by making it easier to shift water use temporarily from farms to cities in times of drought, which is currently difficult to do under the existing water law. Our research indicates that adoption of these “alternative agricultural water transfers” (ATMs) can improve farmer profits from the production and sale of their crops by up to about 15% (in 2050). However, utilizing ATMs can also degrade the value of a farmer’s water by up to 25%, because cities are more slowly buying water up. Much like how you would tremble at seeing the value of your house drop by 25%, a farmer could very likely be devastated by such a loss. Similar trade-offs exist with any policy attempting to save agriculture, so decisions must be made carefully to benefit the most number of people and stakeholders at least cost.

Some solutions and proposed policy adaptations have better trade-offs. For example, if Solution A costs $1 million and keeps 1000 acres in production and Solution B costs more ($2 million) and keeps fewer acres (only 500) in production, then Solution B is said to be dominated by Solution A, because Solution A beats Solution B in both cost and acreage. However, if there is another solution, Solution C, that both costs more ($2 million) and keeps more acres (1500) in production, then neither A nor C dominates the other. Operations research scientists would call Solutions A and C “nondominated” out of the solutions considered. Our previous research has indicated that nondominated solutions typically always incorporate more efficient irrigation equipment for crop farmers, while xeriscaping and conserving water for new urban developments are some of the most cost-effective strategies for reducing the amount of water cities acquire.

Other solutions that benefit both farmers and cities may likely exist. Through our research, we are asking people like you to help explore these new solutions and give us your opinions at the same time by playing a video game! The game is similar to SimCityTM by Electronic Arts, except you play as a water manager who attempts to find the most cost-effective, “nondominated” strategies to solving real world water problems such as those described about Colorado. With a limited budget of play money, you decide:

  1. How farmers irrigate their fields
  2. What farmers grow in their fields
  3. How much to set city water and wastewater rates
  4. How city residents save water through more efficient appliances or educated water use
  5. What city residents grow in their yards
  6. How many reservoirs to build
  7. How much groundwater to pump
  8. What regional water policies are adopted

As you play, you can see the outcomes of your decisions by observing how they impact cities and farmers. Various measures of impacts include the reliability of meeting their demands with water supply, the cost of water to cities, farmer profits, the amount of cropland still used for farming production, and the price of water. By finding good, nondominated solutions to water problems, and especially ones that “dominate” solutions by other players, you earn more play money that you can use within the game to purchase more water-saving technologies, invest in new supply, etc. The game will send our research center your solutions to help us learn:

  1. How to more effectively manage water
  2. What your opinions on effective water management are
  3. Learn better computer algorithms to support effective water management

You will also learn a lot about water management at the same time! We are releasing the video game publicly later this year to ask people like you to solve water management issues by playing the role of a water manager in real world systems like Colorado’s (please sign up to be notified of its release and receive other updates about the game).

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