Collaborative Environmental Research Project Assesses Impact of Urbanization and Climate on Region’s Water Supplies

Wednesday, September 29 2010

By Sue McMurray

MOSCOW, Idaho – Water researchers and social scientists across the region are embarking on a two-year sustainability study to contribute to a greater understanding of human influence on water resources within the Spokane - Coeur d’Alene Corridor (SCC) in eastern Washington and northern Idaho

The University of Idaho College of Natural Resources and the Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach (CEREO) at Washington State University recently received $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to support these efforts.

Entitled “Sustainability Dynamics for Water Resources in a Rapidly Urbanizing and Climatically Sensitive Region,” the project emerged as a collaborative effort among public policy, community and business leaders in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene corridor who identified water resources and water management as their highest priorities.

“The SCC is an important natural laboratory because it is still in the early stages of large-scale urbanization,” said James Gosz, co-principal investigator and associate dean for research at the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources. “Because areas within the SCC differ with regard to the interplay of environment, culture, history, growth patterns, development objectives and regulations, the area typifies urban development complexities that appear within much larger areas.”

“We need to better understand human dimensions in solving environmental issues,” said Todd Norton, co-principal investigator, assistant professor of communication at The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU, and executive board member for WSU’s CEREO. “We need to know how, for example, individual motivation, political jurisdiction and collective decision-making can be leveraged to cultivate sustainable development. It is not just a matter of education. We are dealing with a complex human system where assumptions, beliefs and understanding come into play.”

The western U.S. is experiencing new urbanization patterns associated with amenity-driven growth that often connects lakes, rivers, mountains, natural habitats to urban centers and surrounding development, and places accelerated pressure on natural resources such as water. For example, Spokane (pop. 600,000) is an older, industrial city, while Coeur d’Alene (pop.140, 000) is rapidly growing (40.5 percent growth from 1990-2000), due to the numerous recreational amenities of Coeur d’Alene Lake and adjacent national forests. These recreational points are connected by rapidly growing smaller cities with a diversity of ecological settings and urban planning cultures and practices.

“Research tells us urban development patterns have been found to consume 11 times the land area as suburban development and results in density of land fragmentation that affects water quality,” said Gosz.

The SCC overlies the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. This sole source of drinking water originates in north Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille. The entire system is susceptible to historic and future contamination from both urban and industrial sources.

“The over-arching goal of this project is to improve the understanding of linkages between human dimensions and water resources in order to better enact a sustainable and resilient water system,” said Norton.

The project’s four main objectives include: integrating preexisting water data within the SCC; collecting new data on how humans impact sustainable management of SCC water resources; using software to create models that assess the economic and ecological benefits of alternative management strategies; and building future knowledge and science capacities through education and outreach programs that engage partners and stakeholders.

A wide variety of faculty and student teams from the University of Idaho and WSU will work on difference aspects of the project. Resulting data will be used to develop an optimization model that will assess the relationships between biophysical and human dimensions in the corridor and other, similar geographic regions.
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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit