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Surging Toward Solutions

The students and faculty of UW's new hydrology doctoral program seek innovative solutions to the water issues impacting Wyoming—and the world

By Dave Shelles

Volume 13, Number 1 | Fall 2011

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Libby Creek is raging. From a short hike's distance, its rumbling sounds like a not-so-distant jet engine. Standing a few yards away, one can feel the chilly spray and slight breeze rising from the frigid, rushing torrent.

Scott Miller, associate professor and director of the University of Wyoming's hydrology program, says he's never seen Libby this fast so late in the year. In June, maybe, but not July. Heavy, late-melting snowpack has swollen the creek beyond its narrow banks. Thundering over a cataract, it provides an impressive display of sight and sound.

Tony Perlinski (PhD '12) and Matthew Hayes (MS '12), graduate students in renewable resources, have just checked levels, flow velocity, and water quality in a smaller stream. Next, they'll head uphill to survey snowpack, which has a major influence on the amount of water available for agricultural and municipal use. They won't check Libby Creek today, however. It's not safe to approach, and instruments or not, one look says it's beyond full—and quite formidable. Stunning, too, Miller says: "We're doing work, but I just like to come up here because it's beautiful."

Miller and his water program colleagues—including Ginger Paige, associate professor, David Williams, professor, and Thijs Kelleners, assistant professor—visit these mountains year-round, gathering data that will assist them in forecasting Wyoming's seasonal water supply. Though the headwaters of several major rivers lie within the state, the amount of water they transport varies greatly from year to year due to the semiarid climate and changing environmental conditions. Nor does all of this water belong to Wyomingites. Seven interstate compacts stipulate how much can be used within Wyoming's borders and how much must be left for thirsty states downstream.

Accurate modeling and forecasting are necessary to weather Wyoming's inevitable droughts, says Kristiana Hansen, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics. Water research being conducted at UW will hopefully lead to more effective forecasting and management practices so that even in dry years, farmers can irrigate their crops, ranchers can water their herds, and sportsman can fish Wyoming's lakes and streams.

And thanks to a new doctoral program in hydrology (the study of water movement, distribution, and quality), UW will have a hand in developing innovative water management practices that could ease water stress in Wyoming, the Western states, and around the world.

Accelerating industrial development and population growth, among other factors, contribute to Wyoming's water pressures. "There is the possibility that there will be less water on average in the future and increased variability in water supply from year to year, which will create new challenges for us," Hansen says. "However, highly variable water supply is something that we have always had to deal with in Wyoming's semiarid environment. We have always had to pay close attention to how we manage our water supply." And thanks to a new doctoral program in hydrology (the study of water movement, distribution, and quality), UW will have a hand in developing innovative water management practices that could ease water stress in Wyoming, the Western states, and around the world.

According to a recent United Nations report, more than half the world's population will live in areas of high water stress by 2030. UW's graduate programs in hydrology arose from a desire to produce forward-thinking water experts who understand not only the mechanics of water supply, but also its legal, economic, social, and human dimensions. To this end, the hydrology programs unite faculty, students, and researchers from academic departments throughout the university.

UW's Board of Trustees approved the creation of the WRESE Interdisciplinary Doctorate in Hydrologic Sciences on May 7, 2010. Miller says the proposal received key support from Vice President William Gern of the Office of Research and Economic Development, the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the William D. Ruckelshaus Institute.

When civil engineering professor Fred Ogden arrived from the University of Connecticut in 2006, he quickly identified a willingness in the faculty to support an interdisciplinary doctorate in hydrologic sciences and initiated a faculty-led movement to develop the program. UW had previously approved an interdisciplinary master's degree in water resources, and its success helped establish credibility for the proposed doctoral program.

"We'd been trying to get that caliber of study coming out of the graduate students at the doctoral level—well-rounded and understanding the influences, not just straight engineering or watershed management," Paige says. "There are lots of different ways to look at water issues."

Paige is all too familiar with the need for complex solutions to the region's water problems—and for public education on the subject. At a recent conference of Western land-grant universities, she presented a graph of the water supply in the Colorado River Basin since 1900. Levels were mostly above average for the first half of the century but below average after 1950. Someone in the audience then asked her how the water supply and allocation issues could be "fixed." As if it were that simple.

The research office, Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute agreed that UW was an ideal setting for a hydrology doctoral program. A large institution with strengths in scholarship, research, and outreach could bring together highly specialized faculty from a variety of disciplines. It could also disseminate research findings and innovative practices through its extension and outreach programs—something a hydrology think tank couldn't accomplish.

Today, the young doctoral program, which just celebrated its first anniversary, is uniting water researchers across campus in a common mission. "We're getting to where we have a sense of the variety of disciplines and people who focus on water and those whose information, research, and thinking are important to water," Paige says. "It's a nice synergy at work."

The interdisciplinary spirit implied by its name (WRESE stands for Water Resources/Environmental Science and Engineering) drives every aspect of the doctoral program. Hydrology students can choose from 10 focus areas ranging from water quality to ecological hydrology to quantitative modeling. WRESE-approved classes span 11 academic departments and are taught by 31 instructors.

Hansen says students can deepen their understanding of hydrology, watershed ecology, and water economics by studying with peers and faculty of diverse disciplines. "The more we understand others' perspectives, the better we will be at studying and modeling water flows realistically," she says. "More realism is ultimately better for water resource management and for the state."

The hydrology program has received significant support from friends and alumni as well. Ogden, a professor of civil engineering, occupies the Cline Distinguished Chair of Engineering, Environment and Natural Resources, an interdisciplinary appointment endowed by Roy Cline (BS '60), a former board member of the Ruckelshaus Institute. Likewise, the Willard C. and Elaine N. Rhoads Scholarship for Graduate Studies in Water Resources is awarded to one or two master's-level students each year.

Miller, director of WRESE, arrives at one of the hydrology program's key field sites high in the Snowy Range, where he and Paige plan to conduct a survey of the summer snowpack. Williams and Kelleners are also active in this area—all four researchers and their graduate students are gathering data on local water cycling that will be added to decades of historic data housed at UW. The site's instruments take a beating in the rough mountain winters, Miller says, so the group heads up year-round to make repairs.

The researchers hope to establish a long-term site here dedicated to the study of mountain hydrology. For Wyoming and other Western states, this is a key area of inquiry, because an estimated 50 to 80 percent of the region's water supply begins as snowfall high in the mountains. Equipment measuring precipitation, solar radiation, soil moisture, sap flux, and stream runoff is scattered across the mountainside, and graduate students from UW's wildland hydrology class make frequent visits as they learn about the fate and transport of the region's water.

Paige says the Snowy Range gives UW an advantage in water studies. From this accessible mountain site, it's possible to examine the local snowpack under a variety of conditions. (This year's snowpack was estimated at 200 percent of normal, Paige says. By contrast, snowpack in 2002 was 60 percent of normal.) The site also allows easy access to several creeks that transport snowmelt to the floor of the Laramie Valley.

Paige says that, in a landscape dominated by rangeland ecosystems, the mountains lend water experiments a natural control not available at other research sites. "We have two different types of systems close to each other that we can look at, and we take huge advantage of that," she says. "Vedauwoo still has snow, but it's rangeland-dominated. And then there are the Snowies, where we can look at complex terrains and forested systems—and lots of snow."

While Miller tromps through aspen and pine west of Laramie, Ogden sees a different kind of beauty in Panama where he's evaluating the long-term effects of reforestation on the local water cycle. The lush, old-growth forests he encounters—areas that have never been logged or burned—are a far cry from the high prairies of Wyoming. Rain gear is a necessity from May to December, and such is the case when Ogden arrives in Panama in June.

Proper land-use management to optimize the delivery of water during droughts is a topic common to Wyoming as well. - Fred Ogden

"One major advantage of working in Panama is that the hydrologic cycle here is greatly accelerated relative to the Western U.S.," says Ogden, an expert in physics-based hydrologic models. "Trees also grow a lot faster; there are more than 100 rainfall-runoff events a year. This enables our students to more easily see the effect of reforestation on runoff by examining a large number of hydrologic events per year."

In 2008, Ogden and colleagues from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute converted pastures to plantations by planting 180,000 trees. For the next 15 years, as the trees grow to maturity, they plan to measure water yields in streams and other catchments, noting changes in stream flow patterns, particularly during the January to April dry season.

Traveling between sites is definitely half the fun. Ogden says the rain and mountains make for a sporting hike—like walking and working on a muddy StairMaster. "With every step, I was going in a few inches, and then I took one step and went in up to my knees," he says, recalling his recent hike up a landslide. "I had no idea how I was going to get out, but I did."

Ogden's research is conducted in full cooperation with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which is very interested in his results. At present, about 60 percent of all goods imported to the United States pass through the Panama Canal. The ACP is currently expanding the canal with a new set of locks, an undertaking Ogden calls "the largest civil engineering project on the planet."

"This will increase the demand for water to allow ship transits—and also increase the susceptibility of the Panama Canal to droughts," he says. "The Panama Canal is extremely important to the U.S. Helping to inform decisions regarding its water resources and sustainability is very exciting work."

Ogden's reforestation research may also have applications back home. "Proper land-use management to optimize the delivery of water during droughts is a topic common to Wyoming as well," he explains. "Do the forests in Wyoming serve the same need in providing water as those in Panama?" says Odgen. "We cannot say precisely. However, the tools, techniques, and models we are developing for use in Panama are all transferable to the Western U.S."


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