When it comes to water, Katie Meehan knows the geography

Katie Meehan, an assistant professor, is the resident expert at the University of Oregon on water policy and urban development — from a water politics point of view. Her geography class "International Water Policy" (GEOG 467/567), which debuted in fall 2012 is the only UO class at that deals solely with issues about water policy and politics from an international perspective.

In teaching the course, Meehan uses a multidisciplinary approach to water policy, from economic to anthropological points of view. Students investigate current trends in water policy, case studies from around the world and the impact of climate change on water supply. They are required to think critically and offer insight to water issues such as informal and formal regulation, water markets and privatization, big dam development, small dam removal, and access to water in cities.

The class, Meehan said, has attracted students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

"When students want to study water issues, they tend to go to Oregon State, so I think people here are really interested in it," said Meehan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1999 from the UO, a master’s degree in 2005 from Oxford University in the United Kingdom and a doctorate in 2010 from the University of Arizona.

Along with teaching the geography class, Meehan is involved in research looking at alternative forms of urban development and water issues.

"We tend to kind of look at places like Portland as ideal models of urban development," she said. "I think the assumption that the western city is the ideal model of urban development doesn't necessarily fit."

Part of Meehan's research in the past has investigated how populations in semi-arid desert environments get water from nontraditional sources, such as paying for trucked-in water, stealing water or rainwater harvesting. For an upcoming research project, based in Mexico City, Meehan will focus solely on rainwater harvesting – how households do it and why. Meehan already has spent the last two summers doing pilot studies in Mexico City.

"The research will be looking at ways these decentralized technologies produce new forms of knowledge, and to what extent is that sustainable," Meehan said.

Her research is designed to help reveal alternative forms of water supply and urban development, to hopefully lead to better policies that will allow people, especially in the southwestern parts of the United States, to rely on different sources of water. Roughly 30 million people, from Colorado to Arizona, New Mexico and California depend on the Colorado River. Over the last century, the river's vast supply of water has been leeched by drought, dams and population growth.

Meehan became interested in water policy issues when, after she graduated from UO in 1999, she served in the Peace Corps in central Belize. She volunteered with a watershed organization along the Sibun River, where local villagers had formed a watershed basin council and wanted to increase environmental education.

"It got me interested in using water as a lens for looking at governance," Meehan said.

While at Oxford, Meehan studied environmental change and management in the School of Geography. Her doctoral dissertation at Arizona focused on the Mexican city of Tijuana, where she looked at different types of informal use among a population that wasn't connected to the municipal water supply. Her research examined water theft, purchases made from private water suppliers and rainwater harvesting.

As well as beginning her research in Mexico City and teaching classes, Meehan also is working on a book titled "When the Rain Fall: Water Supply Alternatives in the Neoliberal Era" (University of Minnesota Press).

The book will cover her research in Tijuana and Mexico City, looking at different ways that populations use informal water supplies and specifically rainwater harvesting. The book, Meehan said, will aim to answer broader questions about individual water management in the context of rapid urban development.

Her course on International Water Policy is gaining traction in the Department of Geography. Meehan hopes to expand the class next year and include field trips to Portland and various dams around Oregon, where students can get a hands-on experience with water development and policy.

"We're in Oregon. We have rivers full of water, so why shouldn't Oregon be a top place to study water? It's a perfect laboratory," Meehan said.