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Under the Bridge: USU Scientist Studies Hydrology of Colonial Past

Thursday, Dec. 09, 2010

Detail from ‘The American Beaver’ (1854) by John James Audubon

Detail from 'The American Beaver' (1854) by John James Audubon. USU watershed scientist Nira Salant studied beaver harvest records as part of a NSF-funded reconstruction of America’s colonial water history. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Nira Salant

A postdoctoral researcher, Salant is working with Department of Watershed Sciences faculty members Jack Schmidt and Phaedra Budy on a number of projects through the USU-based Intermountain Center for River Rehabilitation and Restoration.

You can learn a lot about the nature of a society by studying how it uses and alters its water resources, says Utah State University scientist Nira Salant.

“The political, cultural and economic drivers of a society influence how humans interact with their environment and, in particular, their impact on hydrology,” says Salant, a postdoctoral researcher in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences.

Salant was among a team of geoscientists, hydrologists, ecologists and environmental historians who reached into the past to reconstruct the watershed history of Colonial America. Their findings, reported in the Nov. 30, 2010 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, provide a new way of uncovering the hydrology of the past and could also offer a better understanding of hydrologic systems now and in the future.

“By understanding the past, you can better predict the future,” she says. “The period and region we explored – the northeastern United States from about 1600 to 1800 – was a time and place of significant environmental change due to human activities.”

Salant participated in the project as a 2008 recipient of a Summer Synthesis Institute fellowship. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Consortium of Universities Allied for Hydrological Sciences, the six-week gathering, now approaching its fourth year, brings together advanced graduate students at varied sites to conduct interdisciplinary research on the role of humans in shaping the character of hydrologic systems.

“The institute was very short and very intensive,” says Salant, who joined USU after earning a doctorate in physical geography from the University of British Columbia in June 2009. “Within a day or so, we generated a conceptual model for our study and divided into interdisciplinary teams.”

Salant studied the effects of beaver fur-trading in New England on the region’s watersheds. And rather than donning waterproof gear and heading outside to a field site, her usual mode of research; she immersed herself in archived records inside a library.

“Being mostly a field scientist, I wasn’t used to sifting through historical data,” she says. “It was eye-opening that we could use historical records, including anecdotal sources, to reconstruct the colonial environment.”

During the colonial era in New England, close-knit religious communities with strong central governments concentrated their economic efforts on fur-trading and timber extraction.

“Every pelt had a price, so I combed through export records to deduce the harvest rates of beavers during the time period of our study,” Salant says. “That information allowed me to estimate the resultant reduction in the beaver population. In fact, beavers were nearly eradicated by 1800. The loss of the animals’ dams greatly altered the hydrology of the region.”

In addition to New England, the institute’s research group studied hydrologic histories of the Middle Colonies and the Chesapeake Bay region. Pooling their research, Salant and colleagues developed two systems of measurement for quantifying hydrologic change.

One, which they called a simple water balance, can be used to track changes in annual river discharge. The other, termed mean water residence time, calculates the amount of water moving through a system.

“These measurements can be used in other places and time periods to study watersheds,” she says.

At USU, Salant is working with faculty members Phaedra Budy and Jack Schmidt on several projects coordinated by the USU-led Intermountain Center for River Rehabilitation and Restoration. Her efforts are focused on restoration and monitoring programs on several rivers in Utah and Oregon, including the Donner und Blitzen River of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Strawberry River near Heber.

“Through the Synthesis Institute, I gained valuable experience in the use of historic records to quantify hydrologic change,” she says. “I learned to seek answers from sources that you might never have thought of for water research.”

Related Links

Intermountain Center for River Rehabilitation and Restoration
USU Department of Watershed Sciences
USU College of Natural Resources  

Contact: Nira Salant,, 435-797-2038

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto,, 435-797-3517 

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