A Perpetual Puzzle

rm jackson-smith

 by Kinsey Love

USU research brings bright minds together to plan the future of irrigated watersheds.

Douglas Jackson-Smith studies puzzles. Not the 1,000-piece jigsaw kind that have you pulling your hair out before you are finished. He studies the million-piece perpetual kind that intertwine humans and terrestrial systems.

Jackson-Smith, of USU’s sociology, social work and anthropology department, is currently exploring the puzzle of how to improve our scientific understanding of the impacts of human water management in transitioning irrigated landscapes like the Little Bear River watershed in northern Utah. In order to study this puzzle, he has been awarded a $150,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation. This grant has been used to form an interdisciplinary group to delve into the complexities of managing water quantity and quality in a human-driven water system.

Along with solving puzzles, Jackson-Smith also studies people. This grant gives him an opportunity to bring the human dimension to water science. “As a sociologist, I become a translator among the sciences,” he said. In essence, he helps groups of people learn how to “play well with others.”

“On this project, we are encouraging the scientists to implement interdisciplinary research as opposed to multidisciplinary research,” said Jackson-Smith. “With multidisciplinary research, everyone plays in his or her own individual sandbox, which sits side by side next to other sandboxes. With interdisciplinary research, everyone plays in everyone else’s sandbox. It is a messy, but rewarding, kind of research.”

“The Little Bear River water system is not well understood,” said Jackson-Smith. “The river can be dry for four to five months out the year mainly due to human intervention. I am putting together this collaborative group to gain a better understanding of the complex hydrology and changes that are happening in the water system so that we can eventually come up with answers to challenging questions facing water users, water managers and society.”

“With interdisciplinary research, everyone plays in everyone else’s sandbox. It is a messy, but rewarding, kind of research.”

Jackson-Smith encourages scientists on this project to integrate disciplines and engage with others’ methods of research and study. He wants members of the group to look for intersections in their disciplines that could lead to answers to the puzzle of how human changes affect the water flows and water quality in places like the Little Bear River watershed.

Past patterns of human water use, ongoing changes in farming systems, rapid population growth, and accelerating changes in climate are combining to alter the natural hydrology of landscapes throughout the Intermountain West. These changes have affected water quality, groundwater reserves and the timing and availability of surface waters for agriculture, cities and wildlife. Predicted future changes in the amount and timing of precipitation (particularly an earlier snow melt) are likely to drive changes in water storage and irrigation practices. “We need to understand better how humans are interacting with the landscape, and how changes in their behavior will affect the hydrologic and ecological systems in our area. This requires experts from a number of disciplines to collaborate and better understand what is going on,” said Jackson-Smith.

The original NSF funded group of fifteen USU scientists has been holding a series of workshops to discuss the multiple disciplines that are represented in this research and what each of them has to offer to this project. Non-university water resource managers and other stakeholders also have been included in these workshops to ensure that future science projects flowing from this effort will be practical and relevant.

The team of scientists and stakeholders supported by the grant will produce a research plan to guide future studies of climate change, water use and the impacts of water-management decisions on hydrologic processes and ecological systems in irrigated landscapes like Cache Valley.

“Understanding how water moves is cool,” said Jackson-Smith. “And being able to do something good with this information is even better.”

Interdisciplinary research isn’t easy, says Jackson-Smith. It usually is a long process that requires open and unselfish discussion, but it creates results. Information and knowledge is shared more freely, and answers to puzzles are found.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to complex research projects such as this one,” said Jackson-Smith. “The information we gather will lead to an improved understanding of water management decisions and will in turn help make better decisions in the future.” The team plans to pursue a $5 million NSF grant that will be used to implement the scientific plan created during this planning grant.

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The Bear-River Watershed: Where Research Comes Close to Home

43-150 CM

yearly precipitation
(most as snow)


lakes and reservoirs

1340 M

Cutler Reservoir
(lowest point)

3030 M

Mt. Logan (highest point)


land used for grazing


land used for agriculture