Land & Environment

Collaboration Key to Finding Solutions to Utah's Water Challenges, Panelists Say

By Alyssa Regis |

Panelists (from left to right) Burdette Barker, Courtney Flint, Connely Baldwin, and Bethany Neilson, speak during the Utah State University's Research Summit about the importance of collaboration as Utah looks to secure its water future. (Credit: Aaron Fortin/USU).

From the Colorado River to the Great Salt Lake– Utah and the Intermountain West face an epic variety of issues in water quality, scarcity, and equity. Solving them requires experts to put their heads together, crossing industries and disciplines to lock in the best research-driven solutions.

Four water experts came together at Utah State University’s Research Summit on water to discuss the importance of collaboration, on every level, as everyone looks to the state’s future.

The Office of Research organized the water summit as part of an ongoing series to build relationships around societally important research areas. The panel on April 23 represented a host of different water expertise, including irrigation, natural resource sociology, water management, and hydrology data.


One of the panelists, Bethany Neilson, is a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Utah Water Research Laboratory, and a co-director of the Logan River Observatory (LRO). With her hand in multiple projects and teams, Neilson sees the wide-reaching possibilities when different researchers at USU come together to help resolve a variety of difficult local and statewide water issues.

“There needs to be some sort of coordination into how we make our individual projects sum into something that has greater impact,” Neilson said.

The LRO is an example of one such summation. It gathers together faculty from several different departments at USU, including civil and environmental engineering, biology, geochemistry, watershed sciences, and plants, soils, and climate. Other faculty involved hail from Arizona State University, the University of Utah, and Boise State University.

The participants integrate and share long-term hydrologic data to benefit state agencies and water managers. As the faculty come together across department and university lines, they contribute to a foundation for addressing Utah’s water and climate change issues.


Beyond collaborating with fellow faculty and researchers, Neilson said some of the most important innovative contributions have come from working with state government agencies, combining basic and applied research to help inform policy.

Connely Baldwin, a water resources engineer with Pacificorp, has his finger on the pulse of policy. When striking new water legislation was passed a few years prior, he was surprised at how quickly it became law.

“That was my introduction to the Great Salt Lake Strike Team,” Baldwin said.

Neilson is a member of the strike team, along with Utah Water Research Laboratory director David Tarboton and several other USU researchers. The team brings together experts from USU, University of Utah, and government agencies to give the state data-informed policy recommendations. This scientific foundation, combined with the strong net of collaboration, provided important information that contributed to the development of new water laws.

“That’s a good example of taking research and actually implementing it and making it available directly to public policy makers,” Baldwin said.

The panelists agreed the arena where water decisions are madeon state, national, and global scalesneeds to expand to include government on multiple levels as well as business, industry, and local interest groups.

“When more people come to the table to look to the future on how to manage water and how to navigate challenges, better and longer-standing decisions are made,” said Courtney Flint, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society.


But finding solutions to complex water problems takes more than a handshake with a government agency. Water is, at its core, a human need. Management of this basic resource impacts individuals and communities.

The panelists painted a picture of water impacts at the ground level: Farmers facing a plethora of water-related decisions: a changing hydrologic system having unintended consequences on fulfilling water needs; water scarcity disproportionally affecting certain groups and geographic areas of the world.

As Flint said, “Water is that most essential component to life.”

This human aspect of water is at the forefront of new research efforts as relationships are cultivated with community, industry, and government.

Burdette Barker, a joint assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Utah Water Research Laboratory, has seen important partnerships form through his role with USU Extension. He spoke about the Irrigation Innovation Consortium, which distributes grants to researchers at participating institutions.

“Everything they do has to have an industry partner that has real skin in the game somehow,” Barker said.

The consortium connects people in the ‘real world’ with people on campuses. Real conversations with real people in real placesthat is the outcome of collaboration on an individual human level.

Neilson has found the input and perspective of local agricultural water users to be invaluable. Speaking to these ‘real world’ water users has changed her ideas about communicating with the general public and framing solutions in the context of their problems.

“We have to think about relationships beyond science, beyond university,” Flint said. “Because we’re the land-grant university, we really know how to do this. Those relationships are key to our success.”

Ongoing research efforts at the Utah Water Research Laboratory and across USU campuses continue to champion collaboration. While the road is never easy, when government agencies, industry leaders, and university researchers come together at the table, solutions to Utah’s water challenges can begin to flow free and clear.


Alyssa Regis
Communications and Outreach Specialist
Utah Water Research Laboratory


Alyssa Regis
Communications and Outreach Specialist
Utah Water Research Laboratory


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