Friday, October 19, 2012

World experience and work in Wyoming: The global importance of watershed management

This story is the second of several stories featuring EPSCoR personnel and their roles in merging science, education, research and outreach. Dr. Scott Miller is a principal-investigator on one of two EPSCoR grants. This story focuses on that grant and Dr. Miller's work.

Dr. Scott Miller and one of his graduate students.
Dr. Scott Miller was thirteen years old when he first experienced the consequences of poor land management. His parents sent him to Nepal on a backpacking trip, and one day he came across a village that had just been devastated by a landslide. It was monsoon season and the slope failure was due to deforestation. The village had been chopping down the forest to free the land for agricultural use.
“It was very striking to see the connection between forest management and severe consequences to people, including loss of life,” Dr. Miller says.
Dr. Miller’s experience in Nepal urged him to pursue an undergraduate degree in geological sciences. A few years after college he returned to Nepal to work on a dam project, but quickly realized that he needed more technical training, which led him to the field of watershed management. Today, Dr. Miller is a watershed hydrologist at the University of Wyoming.
“The fascinating thing about hydrology and water management is that we are always in a state of flux,” Dr. Miller says. “And, humans are intimately connected to water.”
The connection between humans and water is one of the major driving forces behind the $20 million EPSCoR WyCEHG (Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics) grant, on which Dr. Miller is a co-Principal Investigator with Dr. Steve Holbrook.
“What happens in Wyoming affects a huge number of people that are outside of Wyoming,” Dr. Miller says.
Wyoming is the headwater state for many western states. Good water management is absolutely essential because so many people and such a large ecosystem downstream depend on it. Understanding water in Wyoming is also important because there is a high degree of variability in the climate which dictates how and where water comes from.
“From a hydrological perspective, it is really quite fascinating to work in Wyoming,” Dr. Miller says. “The vast majority of our moisture that drives water in rivers and streams occurs at very high elevations. All of our downstream rivers are dependent on what happens up in the mountains. So, it is a really interesting place to work because of the significant changes in climate and hydrology as you travel from the plains up to the headwaters.”
So far, all of the research sites for the WyCEHG grant are located in mountains throughout the state. This setting is an ideal place for someone like Dr. Miller to conduct research because it is constantly challenging.
“I like being surprised by observations in the field or outcomes from models that I didn’t expect,” Dr. Miller says. “It is very stimulating to tackle something that is not really well understood.”
The water system in Wyoming is one area that fits this description, especially in terms of in-depth understanding because of the high variability. As a Watershed Hydrologist, Dr. Miller will be using his expertise to look at how water is moving through the geologic systems of the mountains and how altering surface processes change water movement.
“There are a variety of disciplinary ways to tackle water,” Dr. Miller says. “In my field usually what we do is go out and put instruments in rivers, measure the flow of water through rivers at various places, look at how much rainfall or snow is coming in, understand the meteorological signals and then measure things like soil moisture and ground water depth. Even with this approach we are still left with an incomplete picture of how water moves through a system because of the heterogeneity of the subsurface.”
To create a more complete picture of hydrological systems, watershed hydrologists build models which represent the actual processes occurring in nature. These models give scientists a spatial perspective of water movement, but they too are incomplete. The best way to create a complete picture is through interdisciplinary work across fields. Watershed hydrology, geophysics, plant ecology and various other fields contribute important information to water research.
“I feel, and this is the purpose of the grant, that by integrating all these different disciplines we will do a better job of getting a fuller portrait of how hydrological systems work,” Dr. Miller says. “The opportunity to have a significant impact is greater when you work in a team. It’s worth the effort to overcome the barriers to interdisciplinary work.”
The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration is an experience Dr. Miller learned and took to heart during a project in Kenya. The project was based on interaction between scientists and stakeholders, and relied on positive collaboration in order to benefit the community in which they were working.
“The place I evolved most rapidly as a scientist was when I was working in Kenya because of the cultural challenges, the positive outcomes of working across cultures and the high relevance of the research,” Dr. Miller says. “I advanced a lot, both as a scientist and as a human being.”
The research funding in Kenya was directed towards impacting people’s lives and livelihoods, which forced the scientists to focus on the most relevant aspects of water in order to help the local people. This emphasis on relevancy is mirrored in the WyCEHG grant, which will help inform water managers in order to help the people dependent on Wyoming’s water.
“We will hopefully be able to provide a better scientific framework for understanding what to expect in the next several years regarding water, which will allow for more appropriate planning,” Dr. Miller says. “If we can improve scientific understanding, we can improve decisions.”

By Kali McCrackin
Photo courtesy of the University of Wyoming

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