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USU river research improves quality of water

Published: Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 11:02


MATT SCHROER, JASON REED, Michelle Baker and Ian Washourn (left to right) conducted research that focuses on water quality and nutrition in western states’ rivers. They plan on expanding their research to benefit other states in the future. BRECK BYINGTON photo

    Members of USU's biology and ecology department studied rivers in Idaho and Wyoming during summer 2010 in hopes of learning more about river ecology. Michelle Baker, associate professor of biology and ecology, said the studies aim to help develop research methods that will be used with Utah rivers the summer of 2011.

    Baker said ongoing funding from a collaborative grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) helped the needs of the team. They were joined by researchers from the University of Wyoming, Notre Dame University and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a private New York school.

    "Our main focus was the factors that control the river's ability to process nutrients," Baker said. "That's important because it's the processes responsible for clean water."

    She said they chose to start in Idaho and Wyoming because they had smaller, clear water rivers that the scientists were familiar with from past studies.

    "Nobody has studied rivers in this way," Baker said. "It's not exploratory in the sense that we don't think we'll be able to accomplish our objectives, but it definitely took a long time to convince people that we could do it."

    The team's research addresses growing concerns about water quality and the availability of chemicals such as nitrogen, which has doubled over recent years. Baker said this is an aspect of global change that should be brought to people's attention.

    This summer, the team will move to the Green and Colorado Rivers in eastern Utah to study much larger rivers with higher sediment loads, Baker said.

    "This is the first time I've really worked on nutrient chemistry," said graduate student Matt Schroer. "It was a steep learning curve, but it was something you learned really quickly and it was a lot of fun doing it."

    Schroer, who is working on a Master of Science in ecology, said he had his first research opportunity as a senior at USU. On this project, he said there was no shortage of work to be done.

    "I've had NSF funding since 2002 continually, but the funding rate for proposals at that agency are less than eight percent," Baker said. "It's important for the university to have that type of funding because it provides opportunities for graduate students and undergraduate students to get training."

    Fisheries and aquatic sciences student Jason Reed, a USU junior, took part in developing the new methods of river testing this past summer. He said as they move to bigger rivers the need for safety while collecting data will increase.

    "It's a pretty good size collaborative effort, and it's a multi-year project, so we'll be doing it next year and the year after that," Reed said. "We're basically trying to figure out how nutrients get used up and get transported in really big rivers, using some pretty novel approaches."

    USU employee Ian Washbourne, a research chemist, aided the team with the equipment the scientists were using for data collection. Washbourne said the gear was worth upwards of $40,000 and is not even on the market yet.

    "These machines are prototypes and we're basically testing them out and working out all the kinks," Washbourne said.

    Reed said the typical day for the team consisted of standing in the Snake, Salmon or Henry's Fork River for eight or more hours a day pulling water samples and running them through the testing equipment.

    The team came to be referred to as a "band of river gypsies," Reed said, because they would set up camp for five days in a given area and then move on to another site. He said their "tent city" drew some weird looks from passersby who would notice the hum of their generators and see their testing equipment.

    Reed said the team's research should pave the way for river water management personnel to be able to go out, take a sample and be able to tell in very fine detail what is in the water.

    "Our research is on these bigger rivers and a lot of this stuff hasn't been done on those yet," Reed said. "It's been done on really small streams. These big rivers are really the lifeblood."

    Washbourne said a worst-case scenario, if nutrient levels in rivers are not properly managed or tested, would be a crash of the entire indigenous ecosystem of any specific river. He said this is why there's an emphasis placed on the team's work.

    Water is probably the most important resource and it's very limited, especially in the Intermountain West, Reed said.

    "A lot of this is to do with management for the future of waterways," Washbourne said. "For example, water is one of the main reasons why people kill each other, or it has been in the past."

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