Water Policy Program Focal Areas

Western Water Management

Through a portfolio of strategic collaborations with other organizations, the Nicholas Institute continues to provide leadership on improving the sustainability of water resource management in the United States. In the western United States, we are improving water resource management in Nevada by designing and pilot testing a blueprint for “unbundling” water rights—that is, reforming the prior appropriation system so that shares in water rights can be easily traded, including with environmental stakeholders, and so that water resources can be managed sustainably for the benefit of all rights holders and the environment. 

The Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

The annual Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum, jointly convened by the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, serves as a platform for addressing domestic water challenges in the 21st century. The plethora of challenges in the US water sector—from the drought in California to the need for policy solutions that address water trading opportunities—will continue to be addressed at this convening as the Aspen Institute and Nicholas Institute collaborate to develop forward-thinking pathways to address the state of the US water system.  

Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use

Advances in horizontal and hydraulic fracturing technologies have enabled gas companies greater access to shale gas formations deep in the Earth. These technologies started the natural gas boom in 2005 and enabled industry to triple the amount of gas extraction in the United States.Research by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions examines potential risks to water and wastewater used throughout each stage of the hydraulic fracturing process.

Reservoir Reallocation

Because much of the United States relies on reservoirs for hydropower, water supply, and protection from floods, it is critical to rethink how to manage reservoirs in a changing world. The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions is developing a database to compare federal agencies' mandated operations with actual operations, and to determine if current legislation provides sufficient flexibility to quickly respond to changing climates.

Smart Water Grid Technology

Infrastructure to conserve water resources is essential as the population grows and the needs for water increase. The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions is exploring how a smart grid for water may help address water scarcity. 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Reservoirs

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions is developing a database and providing analysis to discern how well the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ reservoirs currently follow guide curves—the policy for how to manage the flow and storage of water. The ability for these reservoirs to adapt to changes in climate rests solely on the capacity of reservoir managers to alter their guide curve and reallocate reservoir storage to different uses. However, the ability for a reservoir to reallocate water is often politically contested and requires Congressional approval if the percent of storage reallocated is substantial. To that end, the Nicholas Institute is also examining if the current options provide sufficient flexibility to respond quickly to changing climates.