Land & Environment

USU Watershed Sciences Grad Students Excel in Great Salt Lake Research

Dubbed “America’s Dead Sea,” the Great Salt Lake is anything but. Seventy-five miles long and nearly 35 miles wide, the salt water remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville teems with aquatic life and serves as a critical flyway for millions of migratory birds. Yet the lake, ringed by an extensive network of wetlands and adjacent to Utah’s population and industrial center, is vulnerable to development pressures.

Utah State University graduate students Rebekah Downard and Christine Rohal are among local scientists investigating issues affecting the vast GSL ecosystem. The two scholars, who are mentored by Department of Watershed Sciences and USU Ecology Center faculty member Karin Kettenring, were recently honored for their efforts.

Downard, a doctoral student in ecology who is leading an investigation of intensive water management and its effects on the lake’s wetland health, received the Best Student Poster Award at the annual Great Salt Lake Issues Forum held in May 2014 in Salt Lake City. The yearly gathering is hosted by the non-profit Friends of Great Salt Lake organization.

At the same gathering, Rohal, a master’s student in ecology, was awarded the 2014 Doyle W. Stephens Research Scholarship. The award supports undergraduate and graduate-level research projects focused on Great Salt Lake systems.

Downard, who earned a master’s degree from USU in human dimensions of ecosystem science and management in 2010, is studying water levels and other aspects of wetland health at dozens of sites around the lake. Her study explores management of impounded wetlands and their resultant health in the region’s arid climate and hypersaline waters.

“We know a lot about the discharge of the rivers that go into the Great Salt Lake, and a fair amount about the elevation of the Great Salt Lake, but what’s happening in between is generally unknown,” she says.

Rohal is studying phragmites, an invasive, tassel-topped grass spreading rapidly through the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

“Every time I visit the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, I’m inspired by the diversity and abundance of migratory birds that use this region,” she says. “But I see phragmites as a major threat to the plant communities that these birds need to thrive.”

With Kettenring, Rohal is investigating ways to remove phragmities and restore habitat. Her experiments, she says, are specifically designed to provide practical advice to land managers.

The Great Salt Lake is the topic for USU Science Unwrapped’s upcoming spring 2015 Great Salt Lake Today series. Kettenring is a scheduled speaker for the public outreach program, hosted by USU’s College of Science. She speaks Feb. 20, 2015, at USU.

Related links:

Contact: Karin Kettenring, 435-797-2546,

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

doctoral student Rebekah Downard and faculty advisor Karin Kettenring

USU doctoral student Rebekah Downard, right, with Watershed Sciences faculty mentor Karin Kettenring, received the 'Best Student Poster Award' at the 2014 Great Salt Lake Issues Forum held May 2014 in Salt Lake City.

USU graduate student Christine Rohal

USU master's student Christine Rohal is the 2014 recipient of the Friends of Great Salt Lake’s Doyle W. Stephens Research Scholarship.


Research 545stories Utah 280stories Water 130stories Environment 128stories Ecosystems 101stories Land Management 67stories

Post your Comment

We welcome your comments but your submission will NOT be published online. Your comment or question will be forwarded to the appropriate person. Thank you.

Post your Comment

Next Story in Land & Environment

See Also