Civil and Environmental Engineering
National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) 2014-17
UIUC Graduate College Fellowship 2013-14
In a world of increasing water scarcity and food insecurity, Landon Marston is helping develop global models for optimizing local water use. The United Nations has identified water scarcity as the primary challenge to food production in the coming decades. The work Landon and others at the University of Illinois are doing will help nations meet that challenge.
As Landon explains, for a long time, people thought of water only on a local level. “Traditionally, people made decisions about water use on a local scale, but more recently it’s been talked about on a watershed scale, where you’re trying to manage water effectively over a wider area such as, say, the entire Mississippi River Basin,” he says. Expanding perspectives even further, national and international agencies such as the World Bank are trying to understand how best to use water on a global scale. As a result, over the past two decades the concept of a “water footprint” or, more specifically, “virtual water,” has taken root—the idea that when we consider water use, we need to take into account not just how much water is used directly by a local population, but how much the total water consumption is embedded in more widespread activities such as food production, power generation, household usage, cleaning, and recreation.
Landon’s work will help bridge the gap between physical and virtual water management. Together with other researchers at the University of Illinois, his work focuses on a theoretical model called IMPACT-WATER, which attempts to portray supply and demand as it pertains to water and food at multiple levels from local to global. Developed in part by one of his advisors, Professor Ximing Cai, IMPACT-WATER evaluates the interconnectivity of water, environment, food production, and trade within a global framework. Already widely used in its current form, the improvements that Landon and his colleagues are making will help stakeholders re-envision how best to use limited water supplies. As Landon states, “In some areas where, for example, they’re growing lots of crops and using lots of water, maybe that area could better use the water to produce hydropower and then import food, which has ‘virtual water’ already embedded in it.”
This summer, Landon will participate on a project analyzing the Ogallala Aquifer, located beneath the Great Plains, which supports corn and soybean production in eight states including Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. These states are all currently suffering from drought. According to Landon, “right now the aquifer is recharging, on average, at less than two inches per year, but in many places water is being withdrawn at a rate of over two feet per year— it’s not sustainable.” Using IMPACT-WATER, Landon will evaluate how much virtual water is being exported through food production and will determine changes in global food prices and production if irrigation withdrawals (and, consequently, agriculture production) in the Ogallala region are reduced to a more sustainable level.
Landon started his doctoral program with an MBA and four years of experience with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he assessed the vulnerabilities of dams across the country. He also had international experience stemming from various mission trips. He traveled to Ethiopia to train community leaders to use local materials to provide clean water and reduce disease, and he worked in the Dominican Republic leading a team to shore up a church on the edge of an eroding riverbank. He explains, “Though those trips to Africa and the Dominican Republic weren’t directly related to my current research, they're still important to me because I want to use my skills and knowledge to make a better world. I like to help people with their most basic needs, one of which is water, and related to it is food. That’s one of the driving forces that got me into this type of work.”
With his research so closely aligning with the Army’s interest in global resource modeling, Landon was awarded the highly competitive National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) in 2014. Winning that fellowship, however, did not come easily. His NDSEG proposal built upon the proposal that he had submitted just a few weeks before to the National Science Foundation for the Graduate Research Fellowship. “The NSF was my first attempt at putting together a research proposal, and I spent many weeks, countless hours, working on it. But once I had it ready, redirecting the project to better fit the Department of Defense’s needs was not all that difficult given that there was already such a close fit between my interests and theirs. You have to speak to people’s interests,” he says.
His advice to anyone new to proposal writing is to get lots of feedback. His advisors, Drs. Ximing Cai and Megan Konar, helped him narrow down his topic and showed him how to best present his ideas. He also made use of the Graduate College’s online resources, attended a proposal writing workshop, and worked one-on-one with Colleen Vojak in the Office of External Fellowships.
Through his research and service activities, Landon is poised to make a significant impact on the world’s ability to steward its limited water resources wisely.