Utah State University River Scientist Jack Schmidt Will Lead Grand Canyon Monitoring & Research Center

Utah State University river scientist Jack Schmidt will lead a federal agency focused on providing science to guide management of an iconic river in an iconic region that’s been a pivotal part of his research for nearly 30 years.

Beginning Aug. 15, Schmidt assumes the post of chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center based in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River that flows through it is where my research life started,” says Schmidt, a professor in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences who joined the College of Natural Resources faculty in 1991. “I view this opportunity for service within the federal government as a way to give back to a river and to a landscape that has been central to my professional career and to the education of my students.”

Springing from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, crossing the Colorado Plateau and winding southwesterly to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the 1,500-mile-long Colorado River isn’t a big river in terms of flow. Yet more than 30 million people in the southwestern United States and another two million Mexican residents rely on the river and its tributaries to supply critical water and power.

The deep, sunset-hued canyons of the Colorado River comprise the nation’s densest concentration of national parks and monuments, Schmidt says, and its aquatic habitats are key to the existence of endangered fish species. At the same time, the river’s water and hydropower are central to the region’s economic life.

“The Colorado River has been developed into some of the nation’s largest dams and reservoirs,” he says. “At the same time, the river’s unique ecosystems are threatened by those very same dams, as well as diversions of that water supply. Managing the river is a precarious balancing act.”

The GCMRC is the science provider for the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, which was established shortly after the passage of the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act. At the center, Schmidt will lead a staff of about 40 employees and coordinate a $10-11 million annual budget.

“The adaptive management program advises the Secretary of the Interior regarding decisions about operation of Glen Canyon Dam,” Schmidt says. “The program includes many stakeholders, including the seven U.S. states that depend on water supplied by the Colorado River, American Indian tribes for whom Grand Canyon is central to their identity, electric power producers, environmental groups, state fish and game agencies and several federal agencies.”

Schmidt, whose 1987 doctoral dissertation provided a conceptual model of how the Colorado River’s sandbars were formed and maintained, testified before Congress during hearings focused on the Grand Canyon Protection Act. He was among a handful of advisors who conceived a series of high-flow experiments on the river. These controlled floods, funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior and conducted in 1996, 2004 and 2008, were attempts to emulate spring floods and restore ecosystems altered by the dam.

Schmidt, who retains an unpaid USU faculty position, will continue to supervise current Utah State graduate students under his advisement. He envisions GCMRC as a place to involve students and other stakeholders in efforts to foster applied river science research and management.

“Managing the center will be a unique opportunity to encourage collaboration between federal and state agencies, tribal interests, non-government organizations and academic institutions, including USU,” he says. “I look forward to building new partnerships in order to help GCMRC grow as a national leader in river science and as a center to groom the next generation of river scientists and managers.”

Issues facing Grand Canyon and the Colorado River are not unique, Schmidt says, although they are especially challenging.

“I see the GCMRC expanding its scientific focus beyond the Grand Canyon to other areas within the Colorado River watershed and elsewhere,” he says.

Schmidt, who recently received the National Park Service’s Director’s Award for Natural Resource Research, says the best applied river science is conducted so that every river’s problems and issues are considered in context, as the scientific community continues to learn about managing rivers throughout the nation and the world.

“Studying river problems elsewhere will help us identify solutions or intractable dilemmas in Grand Canyon,” he says. “My students and I have long-standing research programs in cooperation with federal agencies in the Green River basin of Utah and Colorado, especially in Dinosaur National Monument. Elsewhere, we’ve made important contributions to management of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region of Texas and Mexico, and at the Provo River Restoration Project in Utah. These research programs illustrate the scope of river science that helps inform wise management of rivers.”

Schmidt believes USU’s College of Natural Resources benefits from faculty involvement in federal and state public service.

“Many of our alumni serve in state and federal agencies and that’s where many of our students will ultimately build their careers,” he says. “As professors, we have much to gain from spending part of our academic careers engaged in public service. It keeps us in touch with research opportunities and the real-world challenges of managing scarce natural resources.”

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