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Understanding Wyoming Water

Wyoming Water
Graduate assistant Zoe Ash-Kropf, undergraduate research assistants John Westenhoff and Angelina Lasko and Assistant Professor Karen Vaughan (blue shirt) dig through the soil to find permafrost as part of their pedology fieldwork atop Medicine Bow Peak.

During the final year of its grant, the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics celebrates partnerships, infrastructure and an ongoing commitment to understanding water from snow to its flow out of the state.

By Micaela Myers

It’s winter in Wyoming, and the snow is falling lightly, blanketing the trees and drifting in windswept dunes. To some it’s a pretty winter-scape, to others the perfect recreational playground and to some a nuisance. To the state’s water managers and the scientists of WyCEHG—the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics—it’s very important data to be measured and studied.

“In the Mountain West, something like 75 percent of the water falls on 15 percent of the land area,” says Steve Holbrook, WyCEHG co-director and a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “That land area is mostly at the high elevations. People are mostly at the low elevations, so you have this fundamental transfer that has to happen.”

That high-altitude snow melts and travels down the mountains to be used by the people of Wyoming and surrounding states. 

“Water is a scarce commodity in the West, and Wyoming serves as a headwater state to all the regional and downstream users,” says Scott Miller, WyCEHG co-director and a professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

WyCEHG was funded in 2012 via a National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) grant to the tune of $20 million, making it the largest competitive research grant in the history of UW. “In the four years since, WyCEHG has been working on research related to water in Wyoming, with a special focus on applying modern geophysical tools to better understand groundwater systems and their interaction with surface water, including snow,” Holbrook says.

The goal of WyCEHG was to establish a lasting center of excellence in environmental hydrology and geophysics to transform science and watershed management in Wyoming—and to provide cutting-edge knowledge and tools to water resource managers and scientists.

WyCEHG has certainly accomplished this goal, creating lasting partnerships, expertise and equipment. “WyCEHG is now a nationally recognized facility to understand the shallow subsurface,” says William Gern, vice president of the UW Office of Research and Economic Development. 

Up on the Mountaintops

WyCEHG has helped the state better understand and measure snowfall. “WyCEHG has pioneered a new method for using ground-penetrating radar to measure snow thickness and water content,” Holbrook says. “This technique is now being tested by the State Engineer’s Office to complement their monthly snow surveys in the winter.”

WyCEHG is also working on important water models illustrating how water moves in the subsurface of Wyoming’s mountain ranges. “In one case in the Snowy Range, our hydrologists combined a very dense network of stream monitors with a geophysical image produced by airborne methods to produce an improved understanding of water flow,” Holbrook continues.

WyCEHG’s scope and depth of projects are great, with two co-directors, 23 associated faculty members and hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students involved during the project, which is entering its fifth and final year.

One example is the work of geology and geophysics Assistant Professor Andrew Parsekian, whose work is largely focused on the hydrology of alpine or sub-alpine slopes. Using geophysics, he studies the transformation of snowpack into the water sources we access. “One of the most poorly understood parameters of the entire hydrological cycle is soil moisture,” he says. “We use geophysics to get two- and three-dimensional pictures of soil moisture in the subsurface.” This includes studying the impact of different types of snowpack. Two of the slopes he studies are in the Snowy Range, with the third in the Big Horn Mountains, where he partners with Sheridan College using its Spear-O Mountain Campus.

Another example is the work of postdoctoral researcher Denitza Voutchkova of Bulgaria, who studies streamflow changes in high-elevation watersheds throughout Wyoming. “I’m looking at all the different vegetation disturbances that have happened during the last 20–40 years and how those affect streamflow,” she says. “I think everyone who works with water resource management will be interested in the results. All of our water basically starts as snowmelt. Those high-elevation streams are actually what people use downstream for irrigation or drinking water purposes or for industry. In order to plan how things will be changing in the future, we have to quantify and have a better understanding of how certain disturbances affect our streamflow.”

WyCEHG has also provided funding, equipment, expertise and training to support the Central Wyoming College (CWC) Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition (ICCE), a project that began in 2014 as a way to inspire greater student interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—learning. “Because our work centers on the Dinwoody Glacier looking at the implications of ice loss on ecology, hydrology and limnology—water quantity and quality—we were a nice fit for WyCEHG,” says Jacki Klancher, CWC associate professor of environmental health and principal investigator for ICCE. The project includes 13 days of fieldwork on the Wind River Range’s Dinwoody Glacier each summer, a trek that involves using horses to haul gear in—three days in and three days out—as well as a 23-mile hike to the highest research point once they make camp.

“Our premise was that if we delivered [STEM learning] in an inspiring environment using skills that are exciting to them—wilderness mountaineering, rock climbing and travel—we could engage this untapped population in original scientific research,” Klancher says, noting that it’s been a “smashing success,” with great student interest and a PBS documentary due out soon. 

Keeping Water and Knowledge Flowing

Down from the mountains, WyCEHG’s work includes helping municipalities better understand and use water resources. “We have worked with several municipalities—including Laramie, Manville and Saratoga—to conduct geophysical work aimed at better understanding water resources,” Holbrook says. “In Laramie, we have helped the city site well locations using geophysical images, and we’ve conducted downhole logging of those wells to improve understanding of the hydrogeology.”

WyCEHG partners include the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Water Development Commission and Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities.

“We’ve also been working on the Wind River Indian Reservation to build basic capacity in terms of hydrologic information in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” says Ginger Paige, associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. “This includes added stream gauges to try to improve the ability of the tribal water engineers to know how much water, where it is and when.”

Another project Paige is working on examines return flow from irrigation in the Upper Wind River Basin. The project—funded by the state through the Water Research Program administered by the UW Office of Water Programs—leverages WyCEHG’s capabilities. “This is an issue that’s important for water management across the state—how much water that’s applied for irrigation actually returns to the stream system and when,” she says.

WyCEHG is home to millions of dollars of state-of-the-art geophysics and hydrology equipment that’s been shared with municipalities that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. In the future, the equipment will be rentable to anyone in the state conducting research, with the fee revenues going to maintenance.

“We collaborate with folks across the state,” says Elizabeth Traver, manager of WyCEHG’s Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab.  “That really is the long-term goal of this project—to share the data, information and resources.” 

Those partnerships, expertise and equipment will all be lasting impacts of the WyCEHG project. “These Track-1 EPSCoR funded projects are designed to improve the research competitiveness of the whole state,” says Brent Ewers, Wyoming EPSCoR project director. The grant includes education components, which you can read more here

“The capacity at the university has been greatly enhanced,” Miller says. “We’ve hired some great faculty and research staff, and they’ll be here after the grant. We have skills and abilities that weren’t here before, including teaching. A lot of this research isn’t just knowledge that goes into journals—we’re infusing it into our classes and making sure students get it and go back out into the state.”

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