Land & Environment

Decisions Downstream: Exhibit at Merrill-Cazier Library Offers Hands-On Look at Watersheds

By Lael Gilbert |

The Decisions Downstream exhibit at the Merrill-Cazier Library uses art and science to illustrate how management decisions about rivers could be improved by incorporating information about the ecosystem. Photo by Lael Gilbert.

In a new, interactive exhibit at Utah State University’s Merrill-Cazier Library, Sarah Null, associate professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and the Ecology Center, and her colleagues use art and accessible science to illustrate how decisions about river management can be improved by incorporating broader information about ecosystems.

The Decisions Downstream exhibit is open to the public and runs September 14 through December 8. It colorfully illustrates how integrated models can be used to manage water systems. For instance, when managers in Utah plan for projects like dams, they consider mainly information about streamflow (how much water moves past a certain point within a certain timeframe). But that doesn’t show the whole picture, Null said. On the other hands, ecologists are able to create detailed models of short stretches of river that include information on habitat, slope, water speed and more. But these models aren’t always compatible with the regional scales needed to make decisions about water development projects.

Null and her team found a way to merge the two sets of information to create a model that is simple to use, general enough to apply to multiple river systems, and has enough detail to inform decisions on both utilitarian and ecological fronts. But digesting this kind of complex, layered information can take effort, and Null wants to make it accessible to a wide audience. She recruited artists Chris Peterson and Carsten Meier to create large-format images and paintings based on her research for the exhibit.

“When I look at rivers, I see mosaics of habitats—warm streambanks, deep pools and fast-moving runs,” said Null. “I also see water that could be delivered to cities and farms or used to generate hydropower. The decisions we make to manage our rivers are complex, with tradeoffs between developing water and maintaining the ecosystems that sustain us. My goal is to bring these tradeoffs to the forefront so we can ask ourselves, as a society, what balance we value.”

The exhibit, funded by the National Science Foundation, USU’s Ecology Center, the Department of Watershed Sciences, and the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, focuses on Bonnevillle Cutthroat Trout and Bluehead Sucker, priority species for state agencies. After gathering on-the-ground information and testing multiple models designed to predict where fish habitat exists, the researchers found a sweet spot—they determined that stream temperature was key for identifying habitat for Bonneville Cutthroat Trout, and slope best predicted Bluehead Sucker habitat. They worked with managers at state agencies to confirm what they observed on streams they managed.

These integrated models allow communities and resource managers to better understand the true impacts of their decisions about development projects on river ecosystems. They’ll be able to see how a proposed dam at one site might have much bigger impacts on fish habitat compared to another not-too-distant site. The models have the potential to empower communities to make the best choices possible and maintain fish habitat too.

The message that Sarah Null hopes visitors take from the exhibit is that rivers and marshes are more than the sum of their parts, that decisions about watersheds don't have to be a zero-sum game. Photo by Lael Gilbert.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Sarah Null
Associate Professor
Department of Watershed Sciences


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