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The Q&A: Zachary Sugg

In this week's Q&A, we interview Zachary Sugg, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona.

Zachary Sugg is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development.

With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:

Zachary Sugg is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona School of Geography and Development. His research focuses on water in the western United States. Sugg was the lead author of "Conjunctive groundwater management as a response to socio-ecological disturbances: a comparison of 4 western U.S. states" published this week in Texas Water Journal.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: You have a new article coming out in the Texas Water Journal. What is the article about and why is it so important?

Zachary Sugg: My colleagues and I we all have different expertise. We all focus our research on different states, all in the western U.S. We all came together and realized that these states experience a lot of the same natural resource problems — water-related problems — of increasing demand, finite supplies and then factors that we call socio-ecological disturbances in the paper.

Things that make water management problematic, like drought or conflicts between certain surface water and groundwater users or interstate water conflicts; things like that can cause challenges and difficulties for water managers. We looked at this concept, or practice, called conjunctive management and as a response to some of these kind of problems and challenges.

What we wanted to do was we thought, well, maybe we could learn something from comparing how conjunctive management is practiced in a few different states. So we picked four states — Texas, Nebraska, Arizona and California — to see how these states have used or developed conjunctive management practices differently and then maybe think about why that is so.

Conjunctive management is kind of a simple idea. It really refers to the coordinated use of surface water supplies and groundwater supplies utilizing the benefits of both supplies in order to make water supply more flexible and resilient.

For example, in the case of drought that we have been experiencing in Texas and other parts of the country, it can be useful in years where there’s an excess of water, like from surface water in wet years, taking some of that water that’s not being used to inject it or let it percolate into aquifers where it can be stored and won’t evaporate. Use them sort of like a storage tank so later on when drought happens you can withdraw some of that water as a backup supply or insurance when surface supplies are significantly reduced.

Trib+Water: What was the biggest finding in your article?

Sugg: A lot of what we did was identify some of the key differences between these four different states. We primarily looked at differences in infrastructure and physical geography, like the distribution of water resources, and then also what we call institutions — which we think of as rules, different types of policies, regulations, laws, etc.

What we found was that some of the differences between these states are related to whether they have the infrastructure to move water around. We felt the most important factor were these institutions … that can facilitate conjunctive management to a greater or lesser extent.

In the case of Texas, we found historically Texas has kind of lagged behind in creating a regulatory environment friendly to the creation of conjunctive management projects. That was one of the main findings, I think, for us. These other states have developed the practice and utilized it more than Texas has.

Trib+Water: What’s next for your research?

Sugg: That’s a good question. I’m working on a dissertation project that is comparing groundwater governance in the San Antonio area and in the Phoenix metro area.

What I’m working on now is developing my research into … a series of articles looking at different aspects of groundwater governance. I’m focusing partly on organizational form comparing Texas, where groundwater is governed by lots of small conservation districts, to Arizona, which has larger districts.

The idea is to see what we can learn from the comparison what makes the optimal organizational form for making decisions about allocating scarce groundwater resources. In the near term that’s what I’m working on, to finish my dissertation and publish my findings.

Trib+Water: What was the draw of this field?

Sugg: It goes all the way back to my undergraduate education. I was a geography major at Texas A&M University. I got exposed to environmental science thorough geology and physical geology. I also got interested in not just studying the physical systems, but more how humans interact with the environment, how humans use resources, what is sustainability and these types of questions.

I originally got interested in water because to me it's the most basic fundamental resource and I think the most critical natural resource in terms of managing it.

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