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Soiree in the stream

July 16, 2015 — In an effort to understand the Red Butte Creek watershed like never before, close to 50 researchers will gather to study all aspects of the creek and its surrounding watershed in a collaborative, four-day venture, July 20-23.

This is a coordinated effort organized by the National Science Foundation-funded iUTAH. Faculty and students involved in the project are from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Westminster and elsewhere, and from disciplines ranging from sociology to ecology and from atmospheric physics to chemistry. Together, they will take a comprehensive “snapshot” of the water and surrounding land and air to better understand how to maintain a safe, stable, high-quality water supply in the face of growing demand for water and increasing climate variability.

“Red Butte Creek is a great place to address questions of water supply and demand that are relevant to the entire western United States,” said Paul Brooks, U professor and project coordinator. “Although small, Red Butte Creek is large enough that we can perform research in both high-elevation areas similar to areas that supply water for the entire western U.S., as well as low-elevation areas where people live and water is needed.”

The research will address questions, such as:

  • How sensitive are the surface water and groundwater systems that provide water to the stream ecosystem and wells to variability in temperature and precipitation?
  • How do decisions about land use in parks, on campus or in individual households influence surface water and groundwater quality?
  • How can we design low-cost, passive systems that harness natural biological and chemical processes to filter potential pollutants before they enter the stream or groundwater?
  • How can we provide and encourage landscapes that people value while reducing water use through irrigation?

This is a unique event because researchers from so many diverse disciplines rarely have time and resources to come together on a joint project. Because water is central to so many aspects of climate, weather, society and ecosystems, researchers that study water cycling and availability are scattered in many departments, programs, government offices and stakeholder groups.

However, having simultaneous observations allows researchers and decision makers to prioritize both future research questions and potential solutions to water quality and water use issues. Additionally, this type of collaborative work gives students an opportunity to learn new techniques and methods from colleagues in related disciplines

A similar effort will be conducted on the Logan River in August. After these events, the researchers will process samples, analyze data and integrate results into publications and presentations that will help guide future research and decisions about how to manage water resources in Utah and beyond.

Locations and times:

Researchers will begin at 1100 E. 1300 South, and work their way up through campus over the course of the four-day project. Teams will work at different speeds as they progress up the canyon. Call Paul Brooks, 520-331-0088, to find out exactly where researchers can be found at various times.

Best locations to see a variety of sampling include:

  • Red Butte Creek near 1300 East (Monday, July 20)
    • Residential area where groundwater flows into the stream from underground
  • University of Utah Research Park (Tuesday, July 21)
    • Somewhat neglected area of the stream that has storm drains that channel water into the creek
  • Cottams Grove (Tuesday, July 21)
    • Forested area just above Research Park and below Red Butte Garden
  • Upper Red Butte Canyon (Wednesday, July 22)
    • Natural and protected source water area for Red Butte Creek

Visual sampling examples:

  • Hydrology sampling (this will happen every day)
    • Stream gauging to determine how much water is in the stream and how much is moving into and out of the subsurface; researchers will be wading into the stream with various electronic instruments that record water flow.
  • Water chemistry sampling (this will happen every day)
    • This is the broadest area of research and will involve multiple laboratory groups collecting different types of samples. Some samples will identify water quality concerns to people and organisms, some will show how old the water is and some will reveal whether the water originated as rain or snow. There will be opportunities to see researchers in the stream, as well as sampling storm drains that run into the creek and groundwater seeps that flow into the lower sections of the stream.
  • Stream biological sampling (this will happen every day)
    • Researchers will identify what is living in the stream—bacteria, algae, insects and other critters—because that can show the health or impact of a section of the stream.
  • Drought stress and vegetation water source (this will happen in the upper canyon Tuesday and Wednesday)
    • Researchers will study how trees respond to climate and disturbance, including how much water they use and where it comes from. These sites have been studied for 25 years and have generated as many questions as they have answered. The ongoing work will help answer those questions.
  • Riparian vegetation sampling (this will begin Monday afternoon and continue Tuesday or Wednesday)
    • Researchers will quantify the different vegetation communities growing around the stream and what those communities say about water use and water quality.