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November 25, 2014

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Six Questions for Sajjad Ahmad

Hydrologist and professor at UNLV

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Sam Morris

Researcher and UNLV professor Sajjad Ahmad says his work is focused on how the Las Vegas Valley’s most precious natural resource — water — can be preserved.

Beyond the Sun

When Sajjad Ahmad moved to Las Vegas three years ago to take a professorship at UNLV, the hydrologist thought he’d hit the research jackpot.

Ahmad’s research focuses on how to best manage long-term surface water supplies in the age of climate change, water recycling and pipelines. He came to Southern Nevada from South Florida, where his hydrology modeling research was socially and politically important.

What brought you to Las Vegas?

For any water researcher, Las Vegas is where the action is. You have every challenge: Growth is high, average rainfall is low and you have a semi-closed hydrologic loop with the Colorado River that brings in a host of quality issues.

Do you work for local water agencies?

We try to keep as objective as possible, so that means we apply for a lot of federal grants instead of working for industry or local agencies. So our objectives are independent of them, but we interact with them because we need agency data and they, in turn, can benefit from our research. We eventually hope to inform the general public and the decision-makers about the optimal choices for water management.

Where does your funding come from?

My salary comes from the state because I’m a professor. But our research and our graduate students are supported mostly through federal grants. We recently got a $430,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to model the interaction of climate change, water conservation and carbon footprint in the Colorado River Basin. We have lots of projects, but they’re not expensive. We collect data from many sources: NASA satellites, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and others. We work very efficiently, from a cost perspective. One grant can last us four or five years.

How does climate change factor into your research?

Climate change modeling is a layer we put in most of our work. You can’t look at the future of water and not look at climate change. In one study we’re looking at the carbon footprint of water management. We’re using all this energy and putting carbon in the atmosphere to pump water around Las Vegas. You have to look at that impact when you’re considering something like a desalination plant or the pipeline to eastern Nevada. You could decide to pump this water to Las Vegas because climate change has reduced your supply. But in the actual pumping, you’re emitting carbon and exacerbating the climate change. It reduces the resource you’re trying to grow. So we’re modeling what those impacts are.

Has your team looked at how conservation might improve the situation?

The whole theme of our research is: How can we stretch our resource? We’re working on a paper right now on results from modeling of the impacts of graywater use and conservation in Southern Nevada. We created a computer model that shows how growth affects water demand and how different conservation methods like water-smart appliances on new or existing homes or outdoor graywater conversion impact the demand but also the return flow credits.

So does Las Vegas have enough water to survive?

That depends on a lot of factors. Growth is an important thing to look at. Assuming growth moves forward at 2 percent a year or more, no, we don’t have enough water over the long term. Especially when you factor in the climate change impacts on the Colorado River basin and the drought. Even if every Las Vegan had water-smart appliances in every house and replaced all the grass with desert landscaping, our models show there wouldn’t be enough from current supplies to keep up with growth. You can’t conserve enough to match that increased demand.

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