OSU initiative to delve into complexities of water

Flip open a faucet and out flows clear, quality water - most people in the U.S. don't have to give it a second thought. To the average consumer, household water delivery is a simple process with a simple result. But what many people don't see is the complexity behind the reality - and the complexity increases every year, said Roy Haggerty, an Oregon State University associate professor of geosciences.

"While in some ways, we'd like to keep water and watershed issues a no-thought process for the public, we do want people to take some time to think about the real issues that face us today."

The tremendous importance of those issues and the ways they could shape the future is one of the factors that have led OSU to embark on its Water and Watersheds Initiative.

The initiative is one of six the university has adopted in support of the campus strategic plan. Haggerty, Stan Gregory, professor of fisheries and wildlife, and Denise Lach, co-director of OSU's Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability, submitted the Water and Watersheds proposal to the university Provost's Initiative Review panel last fall. Lach, Gregory and Haggerty worked with about 40 other faculty members to craft and fine-tune the proposal during a six-month period before the plan was adopted and funded by the university.

The cornerstone of the initiative is a new Institute for Water and Watersheds at OSU.

And while Oregon State is already recognized as an international leader in water and watersheds, the institute will further entrench the university as one of top places in the world where water and watershed issues are studied, Haggerty said.

The institute is designed to leverage OSU's excellence by:

  • Providing coordination for water and watershed activities at OSU.
  • Creating an innovative, place-based educational approach, connecting a diverse student body with relevant issues across the state.
  • Enabling capture of new, high-value opportunities for research, education and outreach.
  • Engaging OSU faculty and students with external stakeholders across the state.
  • Establishing a set of shared water and watershed collaboratories supporting research teaching and outreach.

The initiative is already receiving support throughout the Pacific Northwest.

"Implementation of a new strategic initiative for water and watersheds would strengthen the research community at OSU and directly benefit many Oregonians," said Chrysten Lambert, executive director of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust.

The Ashland-based Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust works to restore and conserve the quality and quantity of water in Oregon's Wood River Valley and the upper Klamath Basin to enhance the natural ecosystem and supply needed water for downstream agriculture, ranching, native fish and wildlife populations.

"Water is increasingly becoming the most important resource in the state for both rural and urban communities," Lambert said. "Providing a multidisciplinary environment for studies of water and watersheds will provide valuable educational opportunities for students, and train students to address the complex issues they face as professionals." And the single biggest emerging issue - climate change - is wildly complex, Haggerty said.

The warmest year at the world's surface since records began in the 1860s was 1998, followed by 2002, 2003 and 2004, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 2,000 scientists that advises the United Nations, projects a rise of 35 to 42 degrees by 2100. Even the lowest forecast would be the biggest century-long rise in 10,000 years. The Pacific Northwest, with much of its water supply banked in snow packs is particularly vulnerable to increased temperatures, Haggerty said.

Along with the specter of increasing temperatures comes a host of water and watershed management issues. "How do we manage supply under increasing population in Oregon, while maintaining healthy ecosystems? And how do we manage the lands to preserve a healthy watershed?"

The university already has several dozen faculty members who study water and water issues, he said. "We need to coordinate and organize ourselves to be more efficient and visible to the outside world."

One of the focal points of the initiative will be development of a place-based learning facility at Oak Creek, with the watershed serving as a teaching, research and outreach laboratory.

And research will be far ranging as the Institute for Water and Watersheds targets development of interdisciplinary research and learning.

"We'll be drawing from people across campus and from throughout the community - engineering, liberal arts, forestry, soils, ecology - a lot of people with very different backgrounds and approaches who want to work together.

"At OSU, the barriers to this approach are low. It's easier to do this here than at many other universities," Haggerty said. "We have a wonderful group of people who have been eager to contribute."