Thursday, February 21, 2013

Measurements and Modeling: A Look into the Hydrologic side of Wyoming

In the next few months, you might notice a flurry of activity and an influx of equipment in the Snowy Range, especially if you aren’t one for sticking to the trails. If you stumble upon a stream with an equipment draped tower nearby, you may have found one of the watershed research sites for the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG). Though it may look like a jumble of metal and plastic, each piece of equipment is busy acquiring important data about water to help teams of researchers at the University of Wyoming better understand water in Wyoming and the West.

A water sampler
WyCEHG was established by a five-year National Science Foundation grant with the goal of providing water resource managers, stakeholders, and scientists with cutting-edge knowledge and tools to improve water management. As the headwater state for many of its neighbors, Wyoming has to ensure that water allocations are met and that Wyoming communities still have enough water. To do this, it is essential to have a complete picture of the natural water system, which is currently not well understood. WyCEHG brings together researchers from a multitude of fields to help create this complete picture along with two support facilities: the Facility for Imaging the Near and Subsurface Environment (FINSE) and the Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab (SSHL). This week we’ll look at SSHL and the hydrological side of WyCEHG.

“SSHL is not just a location where equipment is stored,” says Elizabeth Traver, the faculty manager of SSHL. “It’s kind of a research and training umbrella to help people figure out what instruments they need and get them out in the field.”

A tipping bucket
Since her start at UW in December, 2012, Traver has been busy helping researchers prepare for their field work. “I’m facilitating researchers, whether they’re undergraduate students or professors, with their research and equipment,” she says. “People are telling me what they need and I’m purchasing those items so that they’ll be here when they need them.”

While the bulk of WyCEHG research will happen during the summer months, some projects are already underway. In addition to on-going field projects centered on meteorological observations linked to tree respiration, soil water and the transport of water though our mountain systems and into streams, two emerging projects focus on snow. Snow is an essential part of the hydrologic picture in Wyoming where most river and ground water comes from snowmelt. One project looks at how much water is actually coming from snow by using a snow equivalency instrument.

                “Snow can have a little or a lot of moisture in it: light, fluffy snow compared to wet, heavy snow,” says Traver. “So what a snow water equivalency instrument does is it actually tells you how much water is in the snow that fell, because the water itself is what is important and not how deep the snow is.”

The other project is about snow isotopes, or the variants of chemical elements in the snow.

“You can take the isotopes in the snow and determine the possible origin of that snow based on the isotope relationships,” Traver says.

By developing a library of isotopes in rainfall, snow, groundwater and streams, the WyCEHG team will gain a better understanding of the ultimate fate of our rain and snow and address the critical questions: does it end up back in the air through evaporation, down in the ground or glowing through our rivers?

A map of the watershed in the Snowy Range Mountains
An undergraduate student has begun to collect snow samples from around the Snow Range Ski area, which he will study using isotope analyzers. While the bulk of winter research is centered on snow sampling, researchers are also preparing for the spring thaw. The area of focus for the summer is a small unnamed creek that drains into Libby Creek, which flows into the Little Laramie River downstream from Laramie.

“There are things that we want set up before the snow starts to melt because we want to be ready for the most important time of the year, water-wise,” says Traver. “We will be putting a whole bunch of instruments on the tower with the ones already out there. We’re just trying to get as much detail as we can from that one specific area.”

The ultimate goal of studying this one watershed in so much detail is to create a water model that can be used in other watersheds.

“The idea is, measure everything, put these parameters in the model and figure out which processes are most important,” Traver says. “Then we can go to a different watershed, measure just those parameters and see if our models will work.”

This type of approach, linking measurements and models, will ultimately help water resource managers, stakeholders and scientists understand what happens to every drop of water in the watershed. This knowledge will help empower them to make scientifically founded decisions about water use and allocation.
By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of WyCEHG

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