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Promoting Urban Food, Energy and Water Resource Resilience via the Regional Food System

Posted by | October 25, 2016


Urban areas are major consumers of food, energy, and water (FEW). While the water and energy generally originate within an immediate geographic region, the food may be sourced globally. The Washington State University Metro Food Energy Water Seed Grant Research Team seeks to understand how food, energy, and water are interdependent in the context of changing environmental pressures and policies, using the Seattle metropolitan area as a case study.

Far Reaching Impacts

Food, energy, and water are deeply intertwined in many of the modern agricultural production systems such as transportation, processing, cooking, and consumption of modern foodstuffs.  A recent article published by the New York Times, Your Contribution to the California Drought, highlighted how aspects of California’s drought conditions are linked to the food that the state produces and exports. For FEW systems to be managed sustainably, an understanding of how changes to one sector can impact and influence the two other sectors is critical. Growing food crops indoors could expand local food production in urban areas and extend the seasonal availability of fresh local produce, however it could be costly in water usage and in energy usage to maintain building climate control.  Expanding water access for food crop irrigation could necessitate curtailment of water for municipal use, hydropower generation, and in-stream ecosystem flows.

Rapid Regional Changes

Understanding FEW resource interactions is vital for making informed policy and use decisions amidst rapid regional change. Washington’s Office of Financial Management estimates that King County’s population will grow from about 1.9 million people in 2010 to about 2.4 million people in 2040. In 2015, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, the population of the central Puget Sound region grew by 2.2%, the highest growth rate in the past 20 years. At the same time, climate change is projected to result in reduced water availability during peak growing season in the Northwest US due to the diminishing mountain snow pack and changing precipitation regimes.

Food-Energy-Water graphic

Figure 1: Circle size indicates relative complexity of sector management decisions and circle overlaps indicate management interconnections. (Image adapted from Adam, Padowski and Barber, in development.)

Developing a Model

This project will develop a model of FEW resource interdependencies at nested urban, county, and state scales based on key stakeholder interviews and information gathered from a multi-disciplinary workshop, which identified emerging opportunities and challenges for sourcing food locally amid regional energy and water pressures. The conceptual model to date provides a framework to quantify FEW stocks (i.e. supplies) and flows, and explores trade-offs in resource use as a function of proximity to food production to meet urban demand. Through modeling, this research will strengthen our understanding of the complex interdependencies among FEW resources and enable exploration of policy alternatives to better manage these resources in our region. Models cannot tell us which system or policy is “best”, but they can simulate FEW sector interactions and suggest possible outcomes of specific system changes, to then support informed decisions.


Current Research

  • Synthesizing data from interviews with 27 stakeholders from across western Washington who are working on issues related to food, agriculture, land use planning, and energy and water resource management.
  • Developing a conceptual model to link regional food demand and supply across geographic scales with regional food trade, pricing and how water, land, energy, and labor interact with agricultural production systems.
  • Locating relevant data sources to parameterize the model.

Long-Term Research Goals

  • Identify FEW stocks and flows into and out of three nested domains surrounding the Seattle metropolitan area: King County, western Washington, and the State of Washington.
  • Assess the water and energy sector implications of increasing the amount of Seattle’s food that is sourced locally versus importing food to meet urban demand.
  •  Develop a model of FEW resource interdependencies that supports decision-makers in crafting scientifically informed policies to incentivize local versus imported food, energy and water production and use.

Project Team:

  • WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources: Liz Allen
  • WSU School of Economics: Michael Brady
  • WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources: Douglas Collins
  • WSU Metropolitan Center for Applied Research and Extension: Brad Gaolach
  • WSU School of the Environment: Kevan Moffett
  • WSU Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach and the State of Washington Water Research Center: Julie Padowski
  • WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources: Kirti Rajagopalan
  • WSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Sasha Richey

Funding for the seed grant to support this work was co-sponsored by the Office of Research, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, the Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, the State of Washington Water Research Center and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Panelists speaking at summit

The Metro Center

WSU Expertise

WSU’s research expertise spans numerous dimensions of food, water, and energy. With nearly 20 years of experience working on food and water issues in the Seattle metropolitan region, the Metro Center is well positioned to contextualize that expertise to the unique political, environmental, ecological, and socials contexts of the greater Seattle metropolitan region. The Metro Center assembled a diverse team of WSU researchers from two campuses, three university centers, three schools, and two colleges; facilitating discussions leading to the successful seed grant application to fund this work.

Leadership and Collaboration

The Metro Center assembled a diverse team of WSU researchers from two campuses, three university centers, three schools, and two colleges; facilitating discussions leading to the successful seed grant application to fund this work.

The Metro Center leads the local engagement and outreach activities for this project, including the November 18th Local Food & the Food-Energy-Water Nexus Regional Summit, along with project management, and coordination.

Learn More

Group picture at a summit

WSU Food-Energy-Water Seed Grants Awarded (pdf.)

Presentation at Northeast Regional Urban Extension Conference

Metro FEW Interview Synthesis Report (pdf.)

Past Events

group picture at summit

2016 Urban Food-Energy-Water Summit

Contact Us

Brad Gaolach

WSU Everett
915 N. Broadway
Everett, WA 98201 (MAP)

Perspectives From Stakeholders on the Food-Energy-Water Nexus in Metropolitan Seattle

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