Land & Environment

Exhibit at NHMU Offers Hands-On Access to Real Consequences of Watershed Decisions

By Lael Gilbert |

At the Natural History Museum of Utah, Sarah Null and her colleagues use art, interactive exhibits, and accessible science to illustrate how decisions about river management can be improved by incorporating broader information about the ecosystem. Photo by Curtis Gray.

Sarah Null knows that there’s a lot more in a river than just water. In a new exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Null, associate professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences, and her colleagues, use art, interactive exhibits and accessible science to illustrate how decisions about river management can be improved by incorporating broader information about the ecosystem.

When managers in Utah plan for projects like dams, for instance, 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. 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, is general enough to apply to multiple river systems, and has enough detail to inform decisions on both utilitarian and ecological fronts.

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.”

In the research, Null and her team focus on Bonneville 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, they 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 can 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 main message that Null hopes visitors take from the experience is that rivers and marshes are much more than the sum of their parts. Decisions about watersheds don’t have to be a zero-sum game, she said.

The “Decisions Downstream” exhibit at the Utah Natural History Museum of Utah is open to the public and will continue through July 31, 2021.

Digesting complex, layered information from research can take effort. Artists Chris Peterson and Carsten Meier were recruited to create large-format images and paintings based on Null's research to make it more accessible to a wide audience. Photo by Lael Gilbert.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Sarah Null
Associate Professor
Department of Watershed Sciences

Traci Hillyard
Administrative Assistant
College of Science


Water 238stories Rivers 98stories Exhibitions 81stories Conservation 78stories

Comments and questions regarding this article may be directed to the contact person listed on this page.

Next Story in Land & Environment

See Also


Bingham Research Center Hosts Celebratory Open House

The Bingham Research Center at Utah State University Uintah Basin hosted an open house on Aug. 28 to celebrate its accomplishments and to thank donors for their contributions.