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 thatвЂ™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 SurveyвЂ™s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center based in Flagstaff, Ariz.
вЂњThe Grand Canyon and the Colorado River that flows through it is where my research life started,вЂќ says Schmidt, a professor in USUвЂ™s Department of Watershed Sciences who joined the College of Natural Resources faculty in 1991. вЂњI 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.вЂќ
Springing from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, crossing the Colorado Plateau and winding southwesterly to MexicoвЂ™s Sea of Cortez, the 1,500-mile-long Colorado River isnвЂ™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 nationвЂ™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 riverвЂ™s water and hydropower are central to the regionвЂ™s economic life.
вЂњThe Colorado River has been developed into some of the nationвЂ™s largest dams and reservoirs,вЂќ he says. вЂњAt the same time, the riverвЂ™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.вЂќ
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.
вЂњThe adaptive management program advises the Secretary of the Interior regarding decisions about operation of Glen Canyon Dam,вЂќ Schmidt says. вЂњThe 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.вЂќ
Schmidt, whose 1987 doctoral dissertation provided a conceptual model of how the Colorado RiverвЂ™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.
вЂњManaging 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,вЂќ he says. вЂњI 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.вЂќ
Issues facing Grand Canyon and the Colorado River are not unique, Schmidt says, although they are especially challenging.
вЂњI see the GCMRC expanding its scientific focus beyond the Grand Canyon to other areas within the Colorado River watershed and elsewhere,вЂќ he says.
Schmidt, who recently received the National Park ServiceвЂ™s DirectorвЂ™s Award for Natural Resource Research, says the best applied river science is conducted so that every riverвЂ™s problems and issues are considered in context, as the scientific community continues to learn about managing rivers throughout the nation and the world.
вЂњStudying river problems elsewhere will help us identify solutions or intractable dilemmas in Grand Canyon,вЂќ he says. вЂњMy 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, weвЂ™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.вЂќ
Schmidt believes USUвЂ™s College of Natural Resources benefits from faculty involvement in federal and state public service.
вЂњMany of our alumni serve in state and federal agencies and thatвЂ™s where many of our students will ultimately build their careers,вЂќ he says. вЂњAs 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.вЂќ