WSU receives $3 million for graduate research to improve Columbia River

A view of the Columbia River Valley with a vineyard and hills in the background.

With a new National Science Foundation grant, Washington State University will prepare graduate students to tackle a difficult problem that is more than 1,200 miles long: the Columbia River.

The five-year, $3 million award will fund a research training program focused on the relationships among rivers, watersheds, and communities. The program is intended to transform graduate science education, creating a diverse workforce that will not just conduct research but also first engage with the many communities that depend on the Columbia for clean water and food.

The grant represents a paradigm shift in how research like this has been done in the past, said Jan Boll, the lead principal investigator for the program.

“Often, students would research a particular feature of this problem; then, we’d publish it and hope that somehow the people who live in the watershed would hear about it—we’re going to turn that upside down,” said Boll. “We’re going to go into the communities and listen to the kinds of issues people are having, and then bring that to the research that we do with the students.”

The training program will be run by WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach or CEREO, which brings together hundreds of WSU faculty from multiple disciplines. CEREO’s interim director, Boll is a civil and environmental engineering professor, and his co-principal investigators on this project are Dylan Bugden in sociology, Erica Crespi from the School of Biological Sciences, Alexander Fremier from the School of Environment, and Zoe High Eagle Strong from the Nez Perce Tribe who directs the WSU Center for Native American Research and Collaboration.

High Eagle Strong will help the group engage Tribal communities in the research process and recruit Native graduate students to the program, a key goal of the grant, since many Tribes have a deep, historic connection to the Columbia River. The project will also draw on WSU Metropolitan Center for Research and Extension and external partners, such as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Spokane River Forum to help engage communities across the state.

Many disciplines and partners are necessary because of the complexity of the problem and sheer size of the Columbia River, which starts in the Canadian rocky mountains and runs clear to the coast near Vancouver, Washington—not to mention that the basin that feeds into the river is roughly the size of France.

Water pollution is also what researchers call an “invisible crisis.” It’s easy for people to notice when there’s a drought and the quantity of water is low, but poor water quality is less obvious, Boll said. The river’s water quality is critical for the human health as communities use the river for fishing, drinking water and irrigating crops. Some of the river’s problems stem from a legacy of past pollution, but some are ongoing and cumulative in effect.

“If you start somewhere up high, say upstream of Spokane, maybe the river is relatively clean there, but as you go downstream, pollution becomes more and more of a problem – and when you get to the west side of the state, the problems are even worse,” said Boll. “The water may look great in some areas, but even small creeks are not necessarily clean at all. It depends what’s happening in those watersheds.”

One of the primary goals for the graduate student researchers will be to engage the communities in those watersheds to help them make science-based decisions that will ultimately benefit the entire river system.

Recruitment for graduate students pursuing either master’s or doctorate degrees will begin this fall with the first cohort joining WSU in the summer of 2022 for a week-long immersion experience on the Columbia. In addition, students participating in this training program will receive a Science and Community Engagement certificate upon completion.

“Washington State University is a leader in creating partnerships between scientists and other community members,” said U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “This $3 million grant will help them train a diverse generation of researchers and work with the community on water quality solutions for the Columbia River System. Driving solutions through science is the way we will solve our nation’s biggest challenges and why we must make a big investment in the National Science Foundation.”

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