LAWRENCE — The National Science Foundation is investing $6 million into a four-year research project based at the University of Kansas that could influence legal and policy debates on water-quality contribution of streams that flow only part of the year.
Perhaps half of the world’s streams and half in Kansas have intermittent flow and play a role in water quality by moving nutrients and carbon, but scientific assessment of these waterways is modest.
“Intermittent streams are common in all biomes and are potentially important controls on water quality,” said Amy Burgin, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and environmental studies at KU and an associate scientist at Kansas Biological Survey. “However, we lack data, infrastructure, training and methods to properly study them. Thus, we find it difficult to predict their influence on water quality.”
She will work on an NSF project involving 18 investigators at eight institutions, including Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence and Kansas State University in Manhattan.
Collaborators in three regions across the United States will help to create a network of instrumented field sites to generate data on flow intermittency, biogeochemical processes and microbiome structure and activity.
“We’ve got aquatic ecologists, hydrologists, microbiologists, data scientists — all from many institutions around the country,” Burgin said. “Intermittent streams are everywhere. In Kansas, we know this because we see even larger rivers go dry as you drive across the state on I-70.”
The project will allow work with 36 instructors on the teaching of data science methods and the training of graduate and undergraduate students in team scientific approaches.
The research could help resolve questions about ecological connections between perennial and intermittent streams at the heart of a policy debate over legal protection of isolated water bodies.
President Donald Trump decided to narrowly define what stretches of rivers and streams would be protected under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration determined waterways flowing only after snow or rain would no longer be protected, a reversal of the rule adopted during the presidency of Barack Obama. Lawsuits have been filed.
Carla Atkinson, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, said the NSF project would allow study of the influence on downstream water quality and ecosystem integrity.
Field work on intermittent streams flowing from mountains is planned in the West, said Sarah Godsey, associate professor of geosciences at Idaho State University.
“It’s often said that mountains are the water towers of the west, and often they help bridge the gap through dry summer months by slowly releasing meltwaters that keep streams and rivers flowing,” Godsey said. “But if more rain falls instead of snow, that can lead to less reliable flows and more stream drying — and we may not have the same water quality that we’re used to.”
Students from the Shoshone-Bannock tribes will travel with a tribal elder to visit Haskell Indian Nations University and connect with tribal members who are Haskell alumni.