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Phone: 307-766-2379
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Email: uwyomag@uwyo.edu

UWyo Magazine

May 2016 | Vol. 17, No. 3

Professor Brent Ewers and his team measure how much water trees are using. Courtesy photo

Professor Brent Ewers and his team measure how much water trees are using. Courtesy photo


Keeping Water Flowing


UW researchers help study key water patterns in the Panama Canal watershed.

By Micaela Myers

The Panama Canal—located in Central America at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—has provided a key passageway for shipping since 1914. Many of the goods that pass through the canal either originate in or are destined for the United States, making it of great importance to the country’s economy. In 2007, the Panama Canal expansion began—the largest project since the canal’s opening.

However, in December 2010, the canal closed due to flooding for the first time ever, making studies of the area’s hydrology all the more important. In 2014, a multidisciplinary team—including Fred Ogden, the Cline Distinguished Chair in University of Wyoming’s Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Professor Brent Ewers in the Department of Botany—began a three-year National Science Foundation research project funded with a $2.89 million grant to study water sustainability, land-use management and climate in the Panama Canal watershed.

“The current expansion of the canal, with the addition of a third set of larger locks, will allow the canal to transit larger ships but also require additional water for operations,” Ogden says. “We are interested in understanding the long-term sustainability of the Panama Canal and how land-use incentives can promote sustainability.”

“The big picture question here is how you deliver enough fresh water,” Ewers says. “The area gets over 2 meters of rainfall a year, and yet during the dry season, you’re not getting enough water for cities and the Panama Canal.

“Older forests tend to release less water into the streams during the wet season and have more water available into the streams during the dry season,” Ewers says. It’s like a sponge effect. “They help even out the wet and dry seasons for the stream flow so there are fewer flash floods in the spring and fewer low-season flows later.

“My contribution on the project is looking especially at how the trees use water,” Ewers continues. “We put sensors into these trees, and we measure how much water they’re using.”

The sponge effect that Ogden and his colleagues hypothesize is mostly driven by roots but also things associated with roots like massive ant colonies and burrowing animals, which are really poorly studied, Ewers says. This spring, the team is setting up electrical pulses to the depth that roots take up water.

UW students help in the research. Teams from other universities are also studying the economics—whether it would make financial sense for the Panama Canal Authority to pay landowners to have their pastures convert back to forests.

“Nineteen percent of U.S. imports and exports go through the Panama Canal, as does 5 percent of the world’s commerce,” Ogden says. “It’s good the United States is still interested in the Panama Canal because of its economic importance to our country.”

Wyoming Research Scholars Program

Senior anthropology and geography major Jazlynn Hall of Rawlins, Wyo., is one of the University of Wyoming’s first Science Initiative Wyoming Research Scholars. With botany Professor Brent Ewers as her project adviser, she is conducting research in the Panama Canal watershed.

“For my graduate work, I think I want to research tropical deforestation, so the opportunity to go to the tropics for the first time was fantastic,” Hall says.

“We’re studying the relationship between plant water use and tree stand age. We’re also going to use electrical resistivity of the soil to try to elucidate the relationship between plant water use and soil water depletion.

“The world is experiencing such intense globalization that the world’s problems are everyone’s problems, especially with regard to scientific fields and environmental problems in general,” Hall says.

“Getting hands-on experimental research has been fantastic. I’ve already learned a lot of lessons for graduate school.”

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UWyo Magazine
University of Wyoming
Dept. 3226
1000 East University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071-2000
Phone: 307-766-2379
TTY: 307-766-6729
Email: uwyomag@uwyo.edu

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