Undergraduate Research Examines Water Scarcity

Student working in the field
Rebecca A. Eckland

Do you know where the water from the faucet in your kitchen sink comes from? Do you know the environmental impacts and the politics of water rights that are attached to it? Questions like these drew TMCC alumni Jacob Rosenbaum to take Environmental Science classes and to pursue the discipline as his academic major. “From a very young age, I knew I wanted to do something involving science...and I focused on environmental science because I like living in a clean world,” he explained. 

The smaller class sizes and lower cost of tuition compelled Rosenbaum to take classes for three years at TMCC, which was the stepping stone that led him to an opportunity to participate in a grant-funded undergraduate research project that he will present at the Wolf Pack Discoveries undergraduate research symposium on Dec. 7 at the Joe Crowley Student Union.

Under the guidance of TMCC Environmental Science Professor Sameer Bhattarai, Rosenbaum completed his research this past summer. His research topic, "Accounting for Long-Term Drought in the Development Process in the Truckee Meadows Watershed," was funded by Nevada NSF EPSCoR Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Rosenbaum received $4750 to complete the project. 

“My research is primarily about policy change and making recommendations to those officials who run the city and county about our water situation,” he said. “It was mainly about understanding the Truckee Meadows hydrologic basin, and what I call ‘real water’ and ‘perceived water.’  Basically, we have over-allocated our water, and there isn’t enough to go around for everyone. This problem is only going to get worse as climate change creates more water stress. And so, the research was primarily about understanding this upcoming water stress and how it’s going to affect communities and the environment.” 

Rosenbaum worked with Bhattarai for several weeks on the project, and the two held weekly meetings to ensure the research project was moving forward as proposed. “The future in the Reno/Sparks area the water scarcity issue is going to be bigger. So, this project explores what kind of measures can we provide when you’re faced with water scarcity issues towards the future,” Bhattarai said. 

Rosenbaum has found value in performing undergraduate research well beyond the grant award. For him, the experience of putting a project like this together and presenting it at a professional conference could make the difference in his professional career. “I will be able to put this on a resume and show my potential employer that not only have I done coursework but that I actually have experience researching, formulating, writing and publishing and presenting a paper at a conference… [all of that] will give me an advantage in the competitive market space for jobs.”  This is vital for Rosenbaum, who envisions a professional future in urban planning with an eye on water rights.

“Research like this helps students in community college to learn and perform the research process and to understand the material in their classes by applying that knowledge in a hands-on way in the field,” said Bhattarai.  “I think these opportunities make them a better student…. And they are better able to complete their studies.”

Why Study Environmental Science 

While not everyone can be an environmental scientist, knowing more about the world around you can help you to become a more responsible citizen and able to make informed decisions about issues that impact local ecosystems and communities. “Knowledge in Environmental Science is necessary,” said Bhattarai. “It helps students to consider what kind of implications there are when we interact with the environment.”

As Bhattarai explains, human beings need to have high-quality water, air, and a healthy ecosystem in order to survive. And so, to interact with these things in the best manner possible, students should have a solid background in Environmental Science. “We are always creating opportunities for students to learn,” said Bhattarai, who recommends students start by taking Environmental Science 101 where they can learn more about improving natural resources and ecosystems. In fact, the class not only offers students the opportunity to learn about the environment but there are also plenty of opportunities to dive deeper through hands-on experience problem-solving in real-world scenarios. 

In addition to individual undergraduate research opportunities, the Environmental Science Program has partnered with the Biology department in the ongoing EcoBlitz event at Rancho San Rafael Park where students have the opportunity to collect and analyze soil and water samples that will contribute to the growing knowledge about the biological and environmental composition of the park. Bhattarai has also found research opportunities for students through partnerships with other organizations in the community, like the Desert Research Institute (DRI.)  

The bottom line: if you show an interest in a particular area of the class, there is a high probability that you will have the opportunity to explore that topic through an undergraduate research project or an internship. This is great news, especially for students interested in pursuing a professional career in Environmental Science.

“In terms of job prospects as well, there are several job opportunities in this field, these can include jobs in consulting or in state government, and a number of agencies. There are so many things that can be achieved with this degree, I think. First and foremost with the information in this field people can make a decision about how to interact with the environment. Maintaining the integrity of ecosystems enables us to have the resources we need to sustain our lives,” said Bhattarai.

Proposing Solutions For a Better Future

While climate change and water scarcity are realities that communities face, Environmental Science offers potential solutions that can mitigate these problems and offer lasting solutions. 

Rosenbaum’s proposed solution to the shortage of water in the Truckee Meadows is for developers to acquire more water rights than he or she anticipates the project will need. “Since climate change is expected to reduce water timing and availability, and since our water currently is at best fully allocated (if not actually over allocated), my recommendation is that more rights should be dedicated than what it is anticipated the project will need.  This surplus will help offset any over-allocation of water (primarily an issue, I think, with groundwater at the moment) as well as the reduction in streamflow amount and timing anticipated with global climate change. For example, if a project needs 1 acre-foot of water per year, perhaps 1.3 acre-feet of water ought to be dedicated to the project. That reduces any over-allocation and begins to accommodate anticipated reduced water availability under climate change,” he said. 

While the numbers suggest this might alleviate some water stress, Rosenbaum admits that the issue of water rights also extends beyond the science. “Water is a very political issue,” he said.

The journey that water takes from its “natural” source to the kitchen faucet is one riddled with complexities that include ecosystems, property rights, politics, human rights—but it’s a journey that Rosenbaum learned to appreciate at TMCC where the opportunity to participate in grant-funded undergraduate research became a game-changer, and something that will make him stand out as an applicant for his future career. 

“I guess there’s a reason why it’s called a community college. TMCC is very much based in the community,” he said. For students wanting to learn more about the environment—and how it impacts their community—TMCC is a great place to start. 

For more information on studying Environmental Science at TMCC, contact the Physical Sciences department at 775-673-7183.