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Artificial river to study river systems

A River Runs Through It

U-Idaho center uses artificial river to study river systems worldwide

Fish and agriculture. Both are crucial to Idaho’s economy, and both rely heavily on Idaho’s river systems to survive. But what do you do when efforts to support one threaten the vitality of the other?

This scenario was the root of a complex controversy surrounding the renewal of a section of the Henry’s Lake Outlet on the Nature Conservancy Flat Ranch in eastern Idaho. In an effort to restore fish habitat, water was returned in 2007 to the historic one-mile stretch of the meandering channel – abandoned in the 1920s when it was straightened to increase water flow to crops.

The restoration project was deemed a success by the environmental community. However, irrigators protested, claiming the project disrupted their ability to convey sufficient water without flooding landowners’ properties.  

The conflict escalated. Unable to reach a resolution, both sides began preparing for court action in 2009 – until Dave Tuthill, a water engineer hired to serve as a technical expert for the irrigators – made a last-ditch effort to help the two groups avoid litigation.

“It appeared to me that there could be an opportunity for reconciliation, but we needed additional technical information to move forward toward a common solution,” said Tuthill, owner of Idaho Water Engineering.

Tuthill turned to the University of Idaho Center for Ecohydraulics Research in Boise, which immediately formed a team of graduate students to study the problem.

“The students met with all parties, analyzed the situation, and set up computer simulations of the channel to develop a range of alternatives,” says Peter Goodwin, director of CER. “The students’ work was an independent perspective that helped both sides see that there might be an acceptable common solution.”

From the Henry’s Lake Outlet in Idaho to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Chile, student and faculty scientists at the Center for Ecohydraulics Research are leading studies to better understand complex river systems and solve practical water problems in the West and around the world.

“We rely very heavily on the river systems here in Idaho and throughout the West,” Goodwin said. “Our work at the center focuses on connecting physical processes in rivers systems with an ecological response. This knowledge can be used by agencies and other management organizations to make decisions affecting our economy, ecosystem and quality of life.”

To aid in this research, the center uses an artificial water channel, or flume, located in its stream laboratory in the basement of CER. At 70 feet long and –six feet wide, the flume discharges up to 40 cubic feet of water per second. Combined with sophisticated computer analysis and modeling, students and faculty control parameters to examine sediment transport and fish habitats.

The state-of-the-art facility draws researchers from around the world to study processes in steep mountain streams.

The flume is particularly handy for faculty member Elowyn Yager, who is investigating how sediment moves in steep headwater mountain streams and the subsequent impact on fish habitat, utilities, and other activities downstream. Professor Yager’s work is partially funded by a National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant – the most prestigious award given by NSF to an early career researcher. 

“Dr. Yager’s work is very relevant to Idaho because headwater streams have received relatively little attention from the scientific community, despite the fact that most of Idaho surface streams are headwater streams,” Goodwin said.

Additionally, professor Daniele Tonina, also a faculty member in CER, is garnering attention for his research on hyporheic zones, the region beneath and adjacent to streams and rivers where surface and groundwater mix. Currently, he is collaborating with the U.S.  Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and the U.S. Geological Survey to develop new, green, lidar technology, which can be used to survey ground and water systems from aircraft and generate high-quality, three-dimensional maps of the topography.

“This is a truly unique technology,” Goodwin said. “This aerial survey gives us unprecedented accuracy about the landscape, from vegetation distributions to the shape and bathymetry of the river channel.”

Professor Tonina is also leading a team of students who are working with the Double J Ranch and the Nature Conservancy to resolve the severe fine sediment problem threatening trout populations in southern Idaho’s Silver Creek, known widely for its world-class fly-fishing.

While its primary research focus is on Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, CER is engaged in studies in California, post-Katrina Louisiana, Europe, Asia and South America, where CER scientists are part of an international team of scientists working to understand the globally significant Patagonia region of Chile.