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WSU receives $1.5 million grant for collaborative water modeling in Columbia Basin

PULLMAN, Wash. – Finding ways to involve primary water users in the research process to develop scientifically sound and economically feasible public policy for water usage in the Columbia River Basin is the focus of a new, $1.5 million grant at Washington State University.

Columbia Gorge
The Columbia River Basin, with its semi-arid landscape and multiple types of water users, will be the subject of the collaborative Watershed Integrated Systems Dynamics Modeling (WISDM) project lead by Washington State University. Click image for high-resolution version. Photo by Bob Hoffmann, Washington State University.

Scientists from WSU’s School of the Environment and the WSU Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach have received a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to build a collaborative water modeling project in the Columbia River Basin. Assistant Professor Cailin Huyck Orr, an expert in inland waters, will lead an interdisciplinary, multi-campus team of social scientists, earth scientists, economists, civil and environmental engineers, agricultural scientists and policy experts in the Watershed Integrated Systems Dynamics Modeling (WISDM) project.

“Research universities have the expertise to help solve a plethora of societal problems,” said CEREO Director Howard Grimes. “Among the most complex is water management, especially in light of environmental change and diverse stakeholder interests. This interdisciplinary approach is exactly what is needed.”

Stephen Bollens, director of the WSU School of the Environment, agreed.

“This is a great example of a pressing, real-world challenge – securing a sustainable water supply – that is simply too large and too complex to be solved by any one investigator, campus or discipline alone,” he said, “But as a coordinated, interdisciplinary team, we can make real and meaningful progress.”

Orr said the timing of the project aligns with what is happening with the regional climate.

“The intent of this program is to learn how water systems and associated stakeholders will adapt to changes in climate and water availability,” said Orr. Precipitation is already falling more in the form of rain and less in the form of snow than in previous years, releasing water more quickly into the watershed and reducing the more steady availability that snow provides as it gradually melts in spring and summer.

The WISDM project will use collaborative simulations informed by people who live and work in the region. The model will demonstrate how the needs and perspectives of both agricultural and urban users can promote or detract from established and sometimes conflicting goals for water management. Hydrological models will take crop systems into account: producers will be able to see how switching from one crop to another can affect water availability and quality, and stakeholders can plan for future water availability under different scenarios. Additionally, the system will calculate how regional economic changes influence the decision-making of individuals and then forecast the combined effects on water use.

This Model Linkages and Feedbacks schematic shows the elements to be used in the Watershed Integrated Systems Dynamics Modeling (WISDM) project, and how each element is related to other elements. Illustration by Allyson Beall, Washington State University.

To evaluate the trade-offs between in-stream and out-of-stream water use, WISDM also will integrate information from a Columbia River Basin reservoir management model that generates suggestions for optimal reservoir releases under various scenarios.

WSU is well suited for projects that involve diverse stakeholder collaboration, due to its history as a land-grant university with an extensive outreach program via its Extension unit, Grimes noted.

The WISDM team includes 10 other WSU faculty and two regional experts:

Jennifer Adam of WSU’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is the technical lead of the WISDM project. As the lead principal investigator of WSU’s BioEarth Land modeling system, she will coordinate the application of BioEarth modeling to WISDM. She also will contribute large-scale hydrologic modeling to the system.

Michael Barber, also with civil and environmental engineering, will apply smaller scale hydrologic modeling, including climate forecasts, reservoir management modeling and small-scale biogeochemical modeling.

Allyson Beall of WSU’s School of the Environment and Chad Kruger of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources are leading the participatory modeling with stakeholder collaborators and also contributing to the outreach effort.

John Harrison of WSU’s School of the Environment will help incorporate large-scale biogeochemical modeling and scaling issues into the model.

Michael Brady and Jonathan Yoder of the WSU School of Economic Sciences will incorporate the economic modeling component of WSU’s BioEarth Land system, helping forecast what water users might do based on economic considerations.

Claudio Stockle of WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering will use WSU’s CropSyst multi-crop simulation model to incorporate cropping systems data into the hydrologic model.

Kent Keller of WSU’s School of the Environment and Brian Lamb of WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research are serving in advisory roles, helping coordinate the complexities of the project and facilitating the interdisciplinary nature of the work.

Carey Gazis at Central Washington University’s department of Geological Sciences will provide technical expertise on groundwater modeling and also assist with outreach activities.

Barbara Cosens at the University of Idaho’s College of Law will provide legal research.

The School of the Environment and CEREO faculty originate from the College of Engineering and Architecture, the College of Arts and Science and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.

See a video about the WISDM project:


Media download information:

A soundbite from Cailin Huyck Orr is also available for download.Go to and use “wsunews2” as the login and password. The file “cailinorrSOT” is available in multiple formats, so find which type you need, and simply press the Download button to the right. The file will automatically begin downloading to your computer. Please courtesy Washington State University.