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Gern explains UW Office of Water Program’s research and education

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – The Office of Water Programs at UW was created in 2002 by the Wyoming legislature, and it aligns the university with the major water agencies in the state, including the Wyoming Water Development Commission and the State Engineer’s Office (SEO).
“It’s important that the university is aligned with the water needs and water research needs in the state,” says UW Vice President of Research and Economic Development Bill Gern, who also deals with water research and related initiatives at UW.
The Office of Water Programs also distributes one million dollars in federal funding each year to researchers, along with advising the WWDC and directing UW’s National Institute of Water Research, run by the U.S. Geological Survey. Gern says the office also directs water research programs through the Select Water Committee and serves as an advisor to the Wyoming Water Association.
“It is important to identify the research needs of state and federal agencies, and serve as a coordinator for the activities, with the needs of the state and UW researchers in mind,” says Gern.
The office does that through a competitive grants program, which Gern says is strongly supported by an advisory committee including eight state and private agencies, with the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts being the private entity.
“The office serves an active role in identifying research needs. As research items become high priority to the state, this group will go through those and develop an annual RFP (request for proposals) and they select the projects that will be funded,” says Gern.
The group also monitors the progress through annual and semi annual reports. “We do this so we’re as closely aligned with state agencies as we possibly can be, in bringing forward their research needs to the university, and to provide answers to questions so they can set policy and address problems,” notes Gern.
Gern says the UW College of Engineering receives the lion’s share of the grant funding, and that mostly contributes to the areas of civil and architectural engineering. He says the ag college also holds a large number of the grants, as does arts and sciences college and the Natural Diversity Database. “It’s important to understand the status of species so we can understand the allocation of water,” he explains.
“It’s a very robust program within the university, with $400,000 per year in funds. It’s a major initiative, and we give a great deal of attention to it,” says Gern.
The Office of Water Programs also does training, with 11 masters students trained to date. “Of those students, nine sit in Wyoming engineering firms, several are in state and federal agencies, and several have gone on to work for other universities,” says Gern.
Of the office’s projects, Gern says they’re very diverse, and the projects are selected based on how important they are to the state of Wyoming.
“Understanding water quality criteria for livestock and wildlife is an element we have to understand as we use our water resources,” he notes. “Wyoming has been involved in weather modification, and that’s done mostly from direct funding from WWDC, but this program is also funding elements contributing to understanding how weather modification will alter stream flows and water availability in watersheds.”
Gern says UW researcher Carol Frost has developed an extremely sensitive tool for understanding the source and fate of water developed through coalbed natural gas. He’s says it’s that work that’s now filling Wyoming Attorney General’s office and SEO with data.
“As we talk with Montana about the Tongue River and the water quality there, and of other rivers heading out of the Powder River Basin, that research has given us a great deal of data that Montana does not have. That demonstrates how research can be used to support, in this case, a very important lawsuit in the state of Wyoming,” he explains, adding there’s a lot of research aimed at hydrologic impact modeling. “Can we model and understand water output from basins and small areas? As we get into spider webs of streams, can we really do a good job modeling output from these basins, and can we do it in a way that is reliable?”
Gern says the new supercomputing facility at Cheyenne will be used to understand geological complexity including soil wetness and groundwater hydrology. He says the computer will be able to run elaborate calculations on a large scale and in good detail. He adds that carbon sequestration could become a major producer of water in Wyoming, and that the computer will allow researchers to look at the world more closely as they develop complexity.
“We can do all sorts of things, and have the computer calculate and model for us in extremely fine detail, and with a fair amount of fidelity to what is actually occurring in the natural world,” he says.
UW’s Bill Gern was present at the 2010 annual meeting of the Wyoming Water Association in Laramie in late October. Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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