Boise State University

Research all across Idaho helps decision makers understand water issues

Boise State raptor biologist Marc Bechard (orange shirt, lower left), with graduate students and a U.S. Geological Survey team, attach radio transmitters to an eagle nestling above the Snake River plain.
Boise State raptor biologist Marc Bechard (orange shirt, lower left), with graduate students and a U.S. Geological Survey team, attach radio transmitters to an eagle nestling above the Snake River plain. Boise State University

Idaho is defined by water; it has carved our landscapes, is the lifeblood of our cities and agriculture, and supports our popular outdoor lifestyle. Our water resources are also a huge economic engine, driving agricultural productivity, power generation and the growth of our cities.

Pressured by a changing climate and growing demands, water resource decision makers across the state face a daunting challenge managing this precious resource. Fortunately, Idaho universities are stepping up to help.

Funded by a National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) grant, researchers across disciplines are uniting to tackle tough issues related to the state’s natural resources that will help drive economic development while improving our quality of life.

EPSCoR is a federal-state partnership to enhance Idaho’s science and engineering research, education and technology capabilities. Its primary goal is to stimulate research in areas important to our state while also building infrastructure at the universities to make them more competitive for future funding from the National Science Foundation and other relevant agencies.

In other words, the grant isn’t just about conducting research, but also about building the capacity to do so by improving our research skills and resources. I’m pleased to be part of the 16-member statewide committee that oversees the project and am particularly excited about our current EPSCoR-funded MILES (Managing Idaho’s Landscapes for Ecosystem Services) projects.

The five-year MILES program aims to advance the understanding of feedback between social and ecological systems in mid-sized cities in the face of climate change and urban growth to inform sustainable policymaking. Boise State University, Idaho State University and University of Idaho each are working on projects that are relevant to their populations.

If we want to fix environmental problems, we need to understand both the physical and human restraints affecting it. Life scientists like biologists and geologists are working with social scientists to understand how people are thinking about the problem and what actions they are likely to take.

At Idaho State, a research team is focusing on the Portneuf River, which runs through Pocatello to the Snake River. Encased for much of its run by concrete or earthen levees to help control flooding, the waterway does little to provide for aesthetics or recreation. City planners wondered, what would it take to change that? And how would that impact river function? Recreation? Water quality?

Researchers are looking at how urban growth is affecting the watershed and how the local population might respond to changes. They’re also trying to identify what lies ahead if the ecosystem is left as it is, and the key decisions that could alter that trajectory.

In the north, a University of Idaho-led team is focusing on water quality in Lake Coeur d’Alene. This beautiful and popular recreation area has been heavily affected by chemical runoff like nitrogen and phosphorous, leading to algae blooms, bacterial outbreaks and an increase in invasive aquatic plants.

At Boise State, our researchers are looking at the future of water resources in the Valley. This involves understanding the physics of water — how it moves, how a warming climate affects snowmelt, where it is being used, etc. — as well as the public policy issues connected to water usage, such as how we currently manage water, how much is used by individual farmers, how crop decisions affect future water usage, how water is being used by civic and homeowner associations, etc.

The Boise State team includes researchers from geosciences, economics, sociology, ecology, hydrology, public policy, urban planning, computer science, communication and visualization. Working with stakeholders, they are building sophisticated computer models that can help predict future water usage based on current patterns, thus allowing managers to make better resource decisions today.

EPSCoR funds other activities as well, including fellowships that provide up to $4,000 per student for summer research experiences in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Up to 60 undergraduate scholars are named each year with a goal of recruiting a core of students who are traditionally underrepresented in these fields. Students work in Boise, Pocatello or Coeur d’Alene based on their expertise.

This project is a perfect example of how research makes a difference in the lives of Idaho citizens, affecting not only our quality of life, but also the economic future of our communities.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.