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Team to study Idaho river basins, warming

Sun., Sept. 14, 2008

Universities receive $15 million research grant

BOISE – Two river basins in Idaho will become a national laboratory to study the effects of climate change on water resources under a five-year, $15 million National Science Foundation research grant.

The grant announced Friday, awarded to a collaboration of all three Idaho state universities in cooperation with other partners including the University of Washington’s climate impacts group, is Idaho’s biggest NSF grant ever.

“The scientific debate is moving from whether climate change is occurring to what we will do about it,” said University of Idaho geography professor Von Walden, a lead researcher for the project.

Jean’ne Shreeve, UI chemistry professor and the project director, said, “It’s probably a project that should have been initiated 25 years ago or longer, so it’s long overdue.”

In the next century, Idaho will get less snow as climate change turns what had been snowstorms into rainstorms. “Our snowpack will shrink, and the timing of our water will change,” Walden said. The project will examine, among other things, how groundwater can function as a buffer against such changes in water supply – but that will take additional research on the connections between surface water and groundwater, a topic that’s “largely unexplored and poorly understood,” according to an overview of the research project.

Idaho isn’t alone. New Mexico and Nevada also received NSF grants to study the impact of climate change on water resources. But New Mexico’s research will focus on mountain snowpacks and Nevada’s on desert environments. The natural laboratories provided by two Idaho river basins – the Snake River Plain and the Salmon River Basin – include those and more.

The project will examine how climate change will affect water availability, land use, economic production, urban growth, water management and water rights, along with fire, insects, ecology, fisheries and changing landscapes. While the Snake plain offers a highly developed and managed water system heavily influenced by human activity, the Salmon contains some of the most pristine rivers in the United States. Research on both can be applied to other river systems throughout the nation, the scientists said.

The competitive grant comes to Idaho through the work of the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research in Idaho, or EPSCoR. It’s a federal-state partnership that’s brought Idaho $66 million in research grants from the NSF and $55 million from the National Institutes of Health since 1989; the EPSCoR program also operates in 25 other states. Post Falls businessman Doyle Jacklin, chairman of the statewide committee that oversees EPSCoR, said the program has “very much enhanced research … in our state.”

Former state Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, the committee’s vice-chairman, said, “A lot of people, I think, don’t understand or appreciate the quality of scientists we have in Idaho today as a result, in large part, of the EPSCoR program.”

The grant will pay for 10 new faculty at the UI, Boise State University and Idaho State University. It also will provide full-time research stipends to at least 20 graduate students; research support for 12 junior faculty, four at each of the three universities; and startup funding and scientific instrumentation to benefit at least 20 additional faculty researchers. Thousands of public school students and 150 undergraduates also will participate in research.

“This is the kind of thing that we need to grow young scientists,” said state Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The research project will be monitored by the climate impacts group at the University of Washington, partner with entities including the Idaho National Laboratory and the Watershed Research Center at Reynolds Creek, and coordinate with the Nevada and New Mexico projects. In addition to its research goals, the project is expected to build infrastructure to support additional scientific research in Idaho through the expanded faculty, equipment and collaborative programs.

Lt. Gov. Jim Risch said, “This clearly indicates that Idaho is a leader in scientific and technological pursuits.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail. com. For more news from Boise go to spokesmanreview. com/boise.

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