Dr. Cienciala’s EELS Lab Launches New Stream Habitat Field Site in Northeastern Washington

Posted on 10/21/2016 | Ryan Keeling and Paige Richardson
Ryan Keeling and Paige Richardson

During the Summer 2016 field season, Dr. Piotr Cienciala led GGIS Master’s student Ryan Keeling and senior Paige Richardson for two weeks of field instruction and data collection at a new field site in the beautiful mountains of northeastern Washington state, just south of the Canadian border. In this research project, Dr. Cienciala’s Ecogeomorphology Ecohydraulics & Landscape Systems (EELS) lab is studying the entire network of streams across the watershed, from small headwater tributaries to much larger main stem channels.

“From the basic science perspective, our goal is to better understand how landscape characteristics influence the quality of fish habitat and its distribution in space. However, there is also an equally exciting, applied dimension of this work: our findings will inform habitat restoration across the watershed,” said Dr. Cienciala.

One of the main goals of these restoration efforts will be to facilitate recovery of bull trout, a native fish now federally listed as endangered species. Absence of bull trout in the study streams is likely a consequence of a dam downstream, which has disconnected the watershed from other river systems for over a 100 years by forming a barrier for fish movement. Recently, the dam has been slated for removal to enable fish movements in and out of the watershed. However, the dam has also trapped sediment carried from upstream by the current. A great amount of material that accumulated behind the dam and within its reservoir during the last century will be released as the structure is removed, temporarily smothering downstream channels and affecting stream habitat.

Paige Richardson is interested in pursuing environmental law, so she values the chance to be directly involved in the scientific process that informs environmental decision making, court decisions, and the development of regulations and policies. “It was great to see environmental research and management in action, on the ground, and be able to be a part of a project that contributes to both,” said Richardson. “Not only was I able to connect with the project, but also with the amazing people I was working with, which for me is almost just as important and equally satisfying. All in all, a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Ryan Keeling’s graduate research focuses on the human impacts of urban and suburban watersheds, and stream health and restoration. He is also an experienced outdoor adventurer, having completed the entire 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail last summer. Northeastern Washington’s incredible scenery, tranquil environment, and wealth of geographic features and processes was the ideal classroom environment for him.

“My first field season in Washington was a great experience in part by the natural beauty of our site, and the incredible team from the EELS lab. We spent our day traveling from site to site on dirt roads, hiking (often in the stream over slippery rocks and wood-jams), wading in the cool water, taking measurements, processing samples, and preparing equipment for the next day,” said Keeling.

“It was our goal to capture as much baseline information about the diverse streams of the watershed with the advanced sensors and simple tools that we carried on our backs, which we used to capture a detailed picture of stream characteristics important for trout habitat. Overall, it was a great experience, learning a wide range of field survey techniques, deploying and operating multiple sensors, and working closely with academic and applied scientists and environmental consultants involved in the project. I look forward to visiting again in the future!”

Despite challenges posed by weather, time, and the sheer size of their research site, Dr. Cienciala, Ryan, and Paige were constantly motivated to continue their research and exploration, even if they knew they were not going to meet all of their goals.

“We never compromised the integrity of our work for the sake of time, just pushed harder to make the time we had out there more efficient. It was surprising as an undergraduate to see such dedication to maintaining the quality of data collection,” said Richardson. Ryan and Paige taking measurments in a stream

After returning to Illinois, the team continues to work with the plethora of data they were able to collect. Dr. Cienciala and his students hope their findings will ultimately provide a unique look at ecosystems of fish-bearing mountain streams, and help us understand how their living and non-living elements respond to restoration efforts. They also hope that this knowledge can aid in recovery of the bull trout, and other fish species that rely on similar habitat characteristics. The team intends to return to the field in 2017 to continue their research. If you are potentially interested in opportunities to get involved, they would love to hear from you!