When California Gov. Jerry Brown signed historic groundwater legislation this year, it represented the culmination of a cross-cutting collaboration among scientists, resource managers, nongovernmental organizations and other water authorities who have been meeting at Stanford to discuss solutions for groundwater overdraft in the nation’s most populous state.

“I’ve never run into anything quite like the Woods Institute and the Water in the West program, which is structured for the purpose of taking state-of-the-art knowledge and trying to move it into the decision-making arena,” said Lester Snow, California’s former Secretary of Natural Resources, who credited a 2012 Water in the West Uncommon Dialogue with laying the groundwork for California’s new legislation.

Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, was speaking as part of a panel assembled at Stanford this week to reflect on the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s work to advance environmental solutions over the past decade.

Ten years ago, few researchers and experts crossed disciplines to collaborate in pursuit of environmental solutions. Today, thanks in part to the pioneering work of the Stanford Woods Institute, the landscape has changed dramatically.

To mark that progress and lay the groundwork for future collaborative breakthroughs, Woods hosted a tenth anniversary symposium on Nov. 11. The event, moderated by School of Earth Sciences Dean Pamela Matson and San Jose Mercury News reporter Paul Rogers, brought together Stanford researchers, students and their colleagues in the water, conservation, sustainable development and public health fields.

“We are celebrating not just a milestone, but a culture of innovation and problem-solving,” said Woods Co-Director Jeffrey Koseff (Civil and Environmental Engineering). “Finding solutions in transformative, creative ways by crossing boundaries is in the DNA of Stanford and Woods."

Since its launch in 2004, Woods has served as a hub for interdisciplinary environmental research, dialogue and leadership education at Stanford University. Researchers affiliated with Woods – which comprise more than 10 percent of Stanford’s faculty – collaborate with experts and decision-makers around the world to find workable, real-world solutions such as educational eco-hotels, low-cost water purification systems, natural resource management software and satellite tracking of groundwater levels. Some of those researchers and partners were on hand for the symposium.

In the first panel, which focused on innovation and collaboration, Woods Senior Fellows Jenna Davis (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Rodolfo Dirzo (Biology) and Stephen Luby (Medicine) shared the stage with undergraduate product design student Phil Salazar and Alvaro Umaña, Costa Rica’s first Minister of Energy and the Environment.

As part of the Water Health and Development program, Davis and Luby advise Salazar and other Stanford students involved with an effort to develop a low-cost chlorination system for drinking water pumps in developing world urban slums. The Lotus Water Project has the goal of building and installing sustainable devices that can be replicated with a 3D printer. The project’s reason for being is pressing – cities in the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than ever before, and there are few toilets to go around. “In essence, we are concentrating millions of people right on top of their waste,” Davis said.

The Lotus Water solution, focused on Dhaka, Bangladesh, for the moment, requires extensive collaboration with residents of target communities and experts in a range of fields from health to demographics. “One of the great joys of being at Stanford is that we don’t have to look at problems only as technical problems,” Luby said.

As a result of his experience with the project, Salazar wants to educate others about sanitation. “I feel really connected to the issue,” he said. “Part of that is because of what I did in Bangladesh this past summer.”

Changing mindsets is also at the heart of INOGO, Woods’ effort to harmonize ecological and economic interests in a threatened tropical region of Costa Rica. Dirzo, one of INOGO’s two faculty co-leaders, explained that the initiative’s success is due in great part to the ability to convince local people that their well-being depends on that of the ecosystems around them. Dirzo recalled his first meeting with area residents as fraught. “They said no more conservation projects. We’ve had so many, and nothing has happened.”

Since then, INOGO researchers have worked closely with local community, government, private sector and nonprofit partners such as Umaña. The initiative has brought area residents into a collaborative effort in which they are empowered to envision sustainable future scenarios for the region, develop leadership skills and gather data to inform social and economic decisions. The value of INOGO’s work is clear: tropical ecosystems are home to about 50 percent of the world’s plant species and about 70 percent of all animal species.

The symposium’s second panel, focused on next generation environmental solutions, featured Lester Snow in addition to Woods Senior Fellow, by courtesy, Rosemary Knight (Geophysics); Woods Consulting Professor and Director of the Natural Capital Project Mary Ruckelshaus; Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate student Melissa Rohde and Chantalle Clarke-Samuels, director of the Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI).

Environmental solutions mean little if they don’t make it into the hands of decision-makers, the panelists agreed. The Natural Capital Project is a prime example of an initiative that works with resource managers and policymakers, specifically through the development and dissemination of software that helps quantify nature’s values and integrate conservation and human development into land- and water-use and investment decisions.

“We didn’t have any tools to quantify the values we know our marine and coastal ecosystems have.” said Clarke-Samuels. “Partnering with the Natural Capital Project helped us to develop our national coastal zone management plan by allowing us to see what those values are, to offer alternative solutions and to look at the trade-offs if we were to choose one management system now as opposed to in the future.”

Similarly, to advance her work on using satellite data to map groundwater levels, Knight prioritizes working with water managers and water districts. “I’m looking at the questions they’re asking, then backing up and saying ‘How can we acquire data, what sensors do we need to really support decision making?’”

As a result of her work with Water in the West, a joint program of Woods and the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Rohde has come to better understand the need to make science comprehensible to decision-makers. “It’s helped me develop the communications skills that are essential to translating research into policy.” As part of that focus, Rohde now sits on an advisory board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

In closing remarks, Woods Co-Director Barton “Buzz” Thompson (Law) recapped Woods-developed solutions and re-iterated the Institute’s focus on translating science into action. “Having great science is not going to be enough on its own,” he said.

Related Documents:

View Agenda and Panelist Lineup

Woods Anniversary Retrospective Featuring Q&A with President Hennessy

Woods’ Decade of Solutions Interactive Timeline 

Event Video:


Innovation and collaboration: overcoming barriers

Next generation environmental solutions

Closing remarks