What We Do: Representative Projects

Water and Environmental Systems

NRT: Rivers, Watersheds, Communities: Training an Innovative, Cross-Sector Workforce for Equitable, Multi-Scale Decision-Making Towards Human and Ecosystem Health

Rivers provide food and clean water, transportation pathways, energy production, travel corridors for organisms, and cultural and spiritual values for people. Despite their importance, many river systems are highly contaminated with toxins, sediment, nutrients, and metals. Contamination originates from many sources, including industrial activity, pesticide runoff, wastewater treatment discharges, and urban runoff. This contamination is considered an invisible water crisis posing serious risks for wildlife and human health in many places. As this crisis escalates in watersheds, it impacts the communities living in these watersheds adversely. Therefore, it becomes important to train a new workforce capable of integrating scientific information, public policy, and the knowledge and concerns of affected social groups, including Native American tribes, for effective management of the resources of river systems. This National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award to the Washington State University will train graduate students from across the United States how to study challenges in rivers, watersheds, and communities as they relate to human and ecosystem health and will use the Columbia River Basin as the study site. The project anticipates training 65 master’s and doctoral degree students, including 25 funded trainees, from civil and environmental engineering, biological sciences, environmental and natural resources sciences, environmental sociology, and political science. Central to the traineeship is developing a community engagement approach that begins with the recognition that communities face diverse and complex issues and leverages knowledge of native communities to identify key problems and implement equitable solutions. Students participating in this program will engage with communities to co-produce solutions and opportunities to the invisible water crisis through scientific training, research, and problem-solving.

DISES: Understanding the Use of Discretion and its Socio-Environmental Consequences for Reservoir Systems

As one of the most heavily impounded large rivers in the world, the Columbia River system provides an outstanding model in which to investigate integrated biophysical and socioeconomic dynamics of river impoundment. This NSF DISES project focuses on the dynamic, reciprocal relationship between environmental and social systems by examining dam operations, the decision-making process governing those operations, and feedbacks between this decision-making process and the environment. As a well-characterized system with quantifiable outcomes (e.g., water levels, volumes, flows, fates) and a well-established but diverse and evolving regulatory environment, dam and reservoir management offers an opportunity to test fundamental hypotheses about tradeoffs between rules-based and discretion-based management approaches to gain deeper understanding of adaptive management of reservoirs specifically, and of the nature of socio-environmental integration generally. In pursuing this goal, WSU investigators will generate fundamental knowledge about how environmental conditions affect resource management and vice versa. The project will also involve training for undergraduate and graduate students; education of K-12 teachers; and engagement of reservoir managers, stakeholders, and the public.

INFEWS: Innovations in Food, Energy and Water Systems

Resilient natural resource management hinges on understanding the complex and interdependent relationships between food, energy and water (FEW).  In the Columbia River Basin, these issues revolve around the competition for limited surface water resources to sustain irrigated agriculture, hydropower generation, and in-stream flow requirements for endangered fish populations.  This interdisciplinary, cross-institution project approaches problems to FEW issues in the Columbia River Basin through a set of conceptual and biophysical regional models that focus on storage for a more resilient future.  Find out more about the INFEWS project here.

Headwater-Dependent Systems across Transect of the Americas

This Research Coordination Network (RCN) is focused on water resource systems along a Transect of the Americas where low altitude areas rely heavily, or exclusively, on water generated in high altitude areas. Billions of people worldwide rely on such headwater-derived water. This project characterizes water at high elevations stored in glaciers, seasonal snowpack, groundwater, lakes, wetlands, and human-made reservoirs. These storage types provide a buffering effect that supports a consistent water supply during drier periods for coupled natural-human systems such as cities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological flows. Headwaters disproportionately experience climate change and thus cause increasing competition with downstream headwater dependent systems (HDSs). In an uncertain hydrologic future, HDSs must develop adaptation strategies to short- and long-term challenges presented by changing hydro-climatic patterns. For more information, visit the Transect of the Americas Website here.

As part of the RCN project, Washington State University and the University of New Mexico are also hosting the Partnerships Along the Headwaters of the Americas for Young Scientists (Pathways) program as part of the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experience for Students (IRES). Pathways funds graduate students to conduct research as part of the Transect of the Americas in Central and South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, or Ecuador).

Fire and recovery

Fire Impacts to Water Quality

The NASA-funded project, “Assessing the need for fire-related decision-support tools for water management in the Pacific Northwest, USA” is a short-term needs assessment study to rapidly gather information about drinking water management.  Fire disturbances in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are projected to increase under a changing climate and are a major cause of increased erosion, runoff, suspended sediment, nutrient release, and debris flows in forested watersheds. Fire-related threats to water quality and quantity are of particular concern to drinking water providers in this region, many of which rely on forested watersheds to provide clean drinking water to millions of people.  This project uses focus groups and an online survey to collect information from PNW drinking water providers and other water managers whose operations or activities could be substantially impacted by wildfire-related changes to water availability or water quality.  Results from this assessment will help poise our team to rapidly evolve FireEarth decision support tools to help water managers plan for and deal with wildfire risks and impacts.  You can read a summary of the online survey results here.


Unprecedented challenges are emerging in fire management in response to climate change, growing populations, and the expanding wildland-urban interface. Although fires are an intrinsic component of many ecosystems, a combination of biophysical and socioeconomic factors can turn them into social or natural disasters, with compounding negative impacts on both ecosystems and human communities. To address these challenges, we need groundbreaking and sophisticated methods that address ecological, social, economic, and political dynamics at spatial scales ranging from local to national and at temporal scales ranging from instantaneous to multiple decades. Simulation modeling is a useful tool for addressing these multi-scaled and interdisciplinary challenges. We are developing a modeling framework called FireEarth, which expands the Biosphere-relevant Earth system model (BioEarth) to incorporate fire, insect outbreaks, drought, and erosion. This modeling framework will be used to simulate episodic disturbance events and their impacts on hydrologic and biogeochemical cycles. It will also incorporate a novel scaling approach to link society, policy, and forest management decisions at scales ranging from the wildland-urban interface to geographic regions in the Western U.S. and elsewhere. Find out more about the FireEarth project here.