Study dives into water systems

Department of Energy, RMBL partner in massive project
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In fall 2017, Houston, Texas endured a series of devastating floods. However, thanks in part to research conducted at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) near Crested Butte, these floods came as no surprise.

Collaborating with a variety of other weather stations throughout the nation, RMBL — in partnership with the federal Department of Energy — used “place-based” research and predictive modeling to forecast the Houston floods. Yet, this projection is just one success in an ongoing project taking place throughout the Gunnison Basin.

RMBL has become the focal point for the Department of Energy’s most recent research endeavour. With a core team of about 60 people and funding upwards of $5 million a year, the Department of Energy aims to understand from a detailed perspective how different climate drivers can impact water quality and quantity. Ken Williams, the lead scientist on the project, received his doctorate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our overarching question is to understand how these mountainous systems release water, nutrients and metals,” explained Williams.

By nutrients, Williams is referring to carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other constituents that can enable a variety of biological reactions. Using the Gunnison Basin — including test sites in Ohio Creek, East River, Taylor River and Taylor Reservoir — as emblematic regions of study, Williams and his team hope to extrapolate the results of their research to mountainous watersheds throughout the United States.

“Place-based research is a critical component of informed decision making for regions that aren’t specifically within that place,” he said. “So what we are doing is broadly representative of mountainous systems.”

While the Department of Energy’s research was previously based in Rifle, the massive project quickly outgrew the footprint of that site. Williams, who began visiting the Gunnison Basin in 2004 for its renowned biking and trail running, identified the area as a prime location for research.

Because of its diverse water forms — including lakes, rivers and waterfalls — the Gunnison Basin is the ideal environment for the agency’s research objectives.

“Gunnison is unique in its natural variability,” said Ian Billick, executive director of RMBL.

“Researchers are able to see a wide range of different river types over a relatively small area.”

Furthermore, the presence of RMBL in the Gunnison Basin was a defining aspect in the decision to relocate. The acclaimed research facility possesses an extensive foundation of knowledge on watersheds within the Gunnison-Crested Butte area, allowing the federal agency to embed new studies into previous research conducted by the laboratory.

“They have really served as a critical broker to allow us to do research over a broader landscape,” said Williams in regard to RMBL.

 

Research starts at local level

A main focus of the project is increased incidence of early snowmelt. Aside from shortening the ski season, this change can have implications for alpine vegetation. Premature snowmelt results in plants enduring prolonged periods of drought, causing them to change their resource behavior. Plants may not produce as many flowers or seeds in a year and instead focus their resources on staying alive.

To study how early snowmelt can affect alpine vegetation and its trickle-down impact on streamflow, Williams and his team configure black mesh on experimental plots to artificially accelerate snowmelt. After a period of several weeks, the researchers compare data collected from these regions with that of the natural climate conditions.

“Pairing natural observations with experimental manipulations is a hallmark of our research,” said Williams.

The next step in the Department of Energy study is linking these local observations with computer-animated predictive models in order to apply their small scale conclusions to an entire watershed.

“As you go to these larger and larger scales, you can’t send humans out to measure all of that information,” Williams noted.

 

Taking a ‘long view’

Thus, the Department of Energy has turned to airborne characterization to further the scope of their studies. Last fall, a hoop-shaped sensor attached to a helicopter was used to map the uppermost layers of the earth’s crust in attempt to understand how groundwater is transported throughout the Gunnison Basin. Using airborne based measurements, combined with predictive models, the Department of Energy is looking to transition to a larger scale.

“The ultimate vision would be to go to satellite-based measurements,” said Williams.

While it may be decades before satellite-based measurements become a reality for the team, Williams is excited about upcoming developments in the project. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently developing a national water model which would allow for water forecasting capability. Williams and the Department of Energy would like to partner with NOAA to create a predictive model which uses observational information to forecast stream flows up to a week in advance.

“Our ultimate goal is enhance the nation’s capacity to make more accurate forecasts of water flow and water quality,” Williams explained.

Though this project began in May 2014, it is very much in the early stages of development. It took the Department of Energy nearly three years to establish the observational infrastructure needed to inform their predictive models.

Williams and his team intend to continue their research in the Gunnison Basin for at least the next 10 years — if not beyond.

“The Department of Energy is taking a long view in a very constructive manner,” said Williams.