A missing link: Modeling water rights in Montana

Montana manages water use and distribution in the state under the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation—a “first in time, first in right” policy where the oldest water users are guaranteed first use of available water. Prior appropriation does not always incentivize water use that reflects the most current priorities and water needs in a specific watershed. The administration of water rights in Montana under prior appropriation can thus represent a critical constraint on water use as it can be difficult to develop new water rights or change the use of older ones. This coupled with future climate predictions creates uncertainty around meeting all of Montana’s future water needs, including water for a growing population, aquatic species habitat, and agriculture.


Policy and law constraints should not be overlooked when it comes to hydrologic modeling, especially when attempting to understand the impacts of changing water availability. Linking hydrologic and climate predictions with the information on legal allocations of water has the potential to increase our understanding of constraints and opportunities for satisfying current and future water needs and for improving water planning at the watershed and state levels.

To account for this legal constraint, UM BRIDGES team members Anna Crockett (UM graduate student) and Dr. Brian Chaffin (UM assistant professor of water policy) are working on integrating the publicly-available Montana Water Rights Database with a hydro-economic model developed by Dr. Marco Maneta (UM associate professor of geosciences, also a UM BRIDGES faculty) and his team, the Hydro-Economics of Agriculture research group.

To learn more about this process of integrating water rights into a hydro-economic model and its applications, Anna developed the following ArcGIS Story Map (Click on the image below). Enjoy!


Linking it all together: research, teaching, and practice

Stream restoration practitioners are increasing working to use restoration approaches that mimic and restore natural processes. One such approach that is becoming common across the western U.S. is to install beaver dam analogs made out of wood and mud to restore degraded streams and store more water and sediment on the landscape. Ideally, these structures restore a stream to the point where beavers may re-establish and then further aid with stream restoration and water storage. Beaver dams and beaver dam analog structures do a great job at turning once incised and eroded streams to complex stream habitats that serve as critical habitat for many species.

However, there are still a number of concerns regarding beaver mimicry due to various gaps in the science surrounding the practice. Specifically, biologists are concerned that as drought continues to be more common that more impoundments on the landscape may increase water temperatures, reduce stream connectivity for stream biota, and have potential negative effects on trout populations through reducing spawning sites quality and/or increasing habitat for nonnative species.

In collaboration with Katie Racette and Will McDowell (Clark Fork Coalition), Steve Kloetzel (The Nature Conservancy), Traci Sylte (Lolo National Forest), and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, researchers at the University of Montana have identified potential project areas with restoration needs where we can investigate the range of effects this restoration practice may have in Western Montana. Researchers will be studying the potential for complexes of beaver dam analogs in headwater streams to increase ecosystem resilience to climate change by increasing the water storage capacity and persistence of cool water habitats into the late season. Research will also focus on fish movement and habitat, as well as the amount and types of carbon stored within and moving through streams with and without BDAs.

In the summer of 2019, Lisa Eby (UM BRIDGES faculty), Ben Colman (UM BRIDGES faculty), Andrew Lahr (Wildlife Biology PhD student and UM BRIDGES trainee), and undergraduate researchers Kenna Karjala, and Hayden Cody (Ecosystem Science and Restoration and Wildlife Biology) have completed the first year of pre-installation monitoring.

In October 2019, the students in the Elements of Ecological Restoration Class performed a service learning field trips to work with the Clark Fork Coalition installed 26 analog structures across 3 restoration project areas. It was a great hands-on learning experience for the students – even as they worked, structures were already visibly slowing and storing water!

We are excited to see how these structures alter population and ecosystem processes. This is a great example of the interlinkages among teaching, research, and restoration practice!


Pictured: Undergraduate students in the Elements of Ecological Restoration Class (NRSM 265), installing beaver mimicry structures with Will McDowell and Katie Racette (Clark Fork Coalition, stream restoration practitioners), Andrew Lahr (Wildlife Biology Bridges PhD student), and Lisa Eby (UM Professor).

Eby_1_EERC class

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COVID 19: A clarion call for #SciComm


By Nadia White


It’s a rare day that science occupies the top spot for local, national and global news, but the novel coronavirus pandemic is shining a hot spotlight on science communications. The climate change communications community has used the opportunity as a timelapse recap of framing and media treatment of a global threat. It’s worth taking a minute to think about the challenges, successes and some risks that have been revealed.


The greatest challenge of communicating the science of the coronavirus is the pace. Science communicators are accustomed to the working with complex ideas for a general audience. Placing the scientific process itself at the center of news stories has taken science communication and journalism into new territory. Journalists on the science beat have put researchers-as-sources at the center of stories about global testing of multiple treatment and vaccine development efforts; harvested news hooks from pre-prints of journal submissions; and asked researchers to clarify the scientific accuracy of the musing of the leader of the free world.


The challenges have been to present new information, fact check policy claims against established scientific understanding and to generally raise the science literacy of an American public that suddenly realizes they do care about process and results. This has ushered in a golden age of info graphics and creative explanatory videos, and shown some pitfalls of rushed science in the public eye.


Here are some high points of the science journalism and communications efforts related to the pandemic that I’ve found admirable and useful. I’d love to see examples that have inspired you, too. Please share them in the comments or in the @WEFnexusUM #INFEWS Twitter thread of this post.


Early on, when the idea of flattening the curve was new to the general public, Grant Sanderson at a his math visualization video blog 3blue1brown offered an effective explanation of exponential growth and epidemics. It’s worth browsing the more than 7,000 comments this received on YouTube to see what math love and interested critique looks like.


Two months later, science graphics editor Jonathan Corum teamed up with science writer Carl Zimmer to explain RNA mutations and why they matter to readers of The New York Times. It’s a well-paced explanation that beautifully pairs images and words to tell a story of science. Science communication is seldom a one-person show anymore. Collaboration is key to communication.


Across the media landscape, news outlets have offered coverage of the coronavirus for free to non-subscribers as a public service. Our good friends at Simbio in Missoula have done something similar, making their digital biology education software broadly available for free to high school and college teachers thrust overnight into the world of remote education. Their How Diseases Spread exploration of epidemiology was created before COVID19 but is highly relevant and being offered for free for summer and fall classes.


The twin needs of science literacy and media literacy are colliding in the Zoomiverse. At times, it feels like a train wreck we can’t turn away from. But turn away we must, we have work to do. It’s time for journalists, science information specialists and researchers across a broad spectrum of social and physical sciences to seize this moment of audience interest and up their science communication game. The world is watching. And learning.

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