Improving forecasts goal of research effort by Fort Lewis College biologist and others across the west

Graphic credit: American Rivers

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Researchers are working to predict water flow in the Western United States – in the same way meteorologists predict weather – to help cities, ranchers and emergency managers make crucial decisions about water management in a changing climate.

The work is focused on forecasting the quality and quantity of water flowing into rivers from mountainous areas, said Heidi Steltzer, an associate professor of biology at Fort Lewis College and an executive committee member working on the project.

Forecasts will make short-term and long-term predictions – from what will happen in one day, in a month or annually – for watersheds across the Western U.S. and beyond, she said.

“You could bring (the model) to the Animas River Valley, you could run the model and we could do a better job managing for water,” she said.

The forecasts could provide better answers to questions such as: “How much water is going to be available for agriculture? Do cities have the water they need? … Do species that live in and around the water corridors have the water they need?” Steltzer said.

Researchers aren’t looking to make predictions hundreds of years into the future, but they want to make accurate predictions as the environment and the system change over time, she said.

For example, they are working to understand the effect snow melting earlier in the year has on the watershed system.

The predictions will also assess what water is bringing down from the mountains, such as nutrients, dissolved salt, dissolved organic carbon and metals. Better water-quality data will help water-treatment managers make long-term decisions about what equipment is needed to treat water to preserve the taste or perhaps strip out certain metals, such as cadmium, said Kenneth Williams, deputy lead and chief field scientist for the project.

The multimillion-dollar project received its funding from the U.S. Department of Energy in October 2016. Researchers are working in the Elk Mountains near Crested Butte, where they plan to collect data in four watersheds. The project’s federal funding will be reviewed every three years, and there is no predetermined end date, Williams said.

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