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Posts tagged ‘Grant Harris Fellowship’

Irrigation and Climate Impacts to the Water-Energy Balance of the WI Central Sands (Part I)

Due to controversy over the growing number of high capacity wells in the Wisconsin Central Sands, University of Wisconsin PhD student, Mallika Nocco, is researching how agricultural land use, irrigation, and climate change impact the region’s water-energy balance.  She and her team have uncovered some surprising results.

Fisher women leans in for a kiss with a class 1 trout she caught

A class 1 trout stream has sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout at or near carry capacity.

Water Use Debate

There are class 1 trout streams in the Central Sands region, and some people worry that the increasing number of high capacity wells used for agriculture will reduce the water levels in those streams.  “Lake Huron has lost about 11 feet of water since 2000,” says one resident of the Central Sands area, “and water levels are continuing to drop.” In 2008, the small well he used to pump drinking water went dry, and he blames the high capacity wells.” (Aljazeera America)  On the other side of the debate, agriculture irrigated by these wells is extremely valuable to the state, and growers have taken quite a bit of time to understand the water cycle and their role in it. You can read about their water management goals and accomplishments here.

Updating Former Research

Irrigated agriculture wasn’t prevalent or profitable in the Wisconsin Central Sands until groundwater irrigation with high capacity wells became feasible in the 1950s.  Since then, this relatively small ecological region has gone from 60 high capacity wells in 1960 to over 2,500 today.

Mallika Nocco is studying potential groundwater recharge from irrigated cropping systems that use the wells, hoping to understand if the irrigation water is lost or returned to the groundwater.  She says, “Until now, we’ve been relying on models validated by two lysimeters in the 1970s. Champ Tanner (one of the fathers of environmental biophysics) designed the weighing lysimeters, and they were very accurate, but we wanted to do a larger scale study with multiple crops to get a handle on interannual variability and to improve our understanding of recharge in the region so we can do a better job of managing irrigation and groundwater.”

Lysimeter installation into a dirt and a field

Lysimeter installation into actively managed fields presented challenges that the research team had to overcome.

Measuring Recharge

Nocco used twenty-five drain gauge lysimeters to capture vadose zone flux under potato and maize cropping systems.  She monitored soil water (and temperature) flux by stratifying water content sensors from the soil surface to a depth of 1.4 meters.  She also estimated evapotranspiration (ET) using a porometer to measure stomatal conductance, in addition to obtaining micrometeorology, leaf area index, and gas exchange measurements.

Nocco and her team had to put their sensors in to avoid cultivation, so they extended the drain gauge PVC that comes up to the soil surface and removed it any time there was major fieldwork, whether it was tillage or planting, so that the area over the lysimeter got the same treatment as the rest of the agricultural fields.

Below the Root Zone

Nocco says getting the lysimeters below the root zone was a challenge.  Next week, read about how she solved that challenge, how she used a GPS system to find the lysimeters within a half-inch of accuracy, and about her surprising conclusions.

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Predicting the Stability of Rangeland Productivity to Climate Change

Dr. Lauren Hallett, researcher at  the University of California, Berkeley, recently conducted a study testing the importance of compensatory dynamics on forage stability in an experimental field setting where she manipulated rainfall availability and species interactions. She wanted to understand how climate variability affected patterns of species tradeoff in grasslands over time and how those tradeoffs affected the stability of things like forage production across changing rainfall conditions.

field with species tradeoffs standing in the brush

Species tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.

Species Tradeoff

A key mechanism that can lead to stability in forage production is compensatory dynamics, in which the responses of different species  to climate fluctuations result in tradeoffs between functional groups over time. These tradeoffs could help mitigate the negative effects of climate variability on overall forage production.  Dr. Hallett comments, “In California grasslands, there’s a pattern that is part of rangeland dogma, that in dry years you have more forbs, and in wet years you have more grasses. I wondered if you could manage the system so that both forbs and grasses are present in the seed bank, able to respond to climate.  This would perhaps buffer community properties, like soil cover for erosion control and forage production in terms of biomass, from the effects of climate variability.”

Tradeoff in a green field, aerial view

In areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.

Manipulating Species Composition

Dr. Hallett capitalized on the pre-existing grazing manipulation that her lab had done over the previous four years.  The grazing she replicated for this study was experimentally controlled, making it easier to ensure consistency.  She built rainout shelters where she collected the water and applied it to dry versus wet plots.  She also manipulated species composition, allowing only grasses, only forbs, or a mix of the two.  These treatments allowed her to study changes in cover and biomass.

Hallett used soil moisture probes and data loggers to characterize the treatment effects of this experiment and to parameterize models that predict rangeland response to climate change.  She says, “I wanted to verify that my rainfall treatments were getting a really strong soil moisture dynamic, and I found the shelters and the irrigation worked really well.”  Along with above-ground vegetation, she collected soil cores and looked at nutrient differences in conjunction with soil moisture.  Since her field site is located within the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center, Dr. Hallett was able to rely on precipitation data that was already measured on-site.  


Dr. Hallett found that in areas experiencing moderate grazing, there was a strong species tradeoff between grasses and forbs.  She comments, “I had a seedbank that had both functional groups represented, and those tradeoffs did a lot to stabilize cover over time.”

When Dr. Hallett replicated the experiment in an area that had a history of low grazing, she found that the proportion of forbs wasn’t as high in the seedbank.  As a consequence, there was a major loss of cover in the dry plots.  She explains, “When the grass died, there weren’t many forbs to replace it, and you ended up with a lot of bare ground. The areas that were lightly grazed had more litter, so initially, the soil moisture was okay, but as the season progressed into a dry condition and the litter decomposed, there wasn’t enough new vegetation to stabilize the soil.”  As a result, Dr. Hallett thinks in low-grazed areas it’s important to have an intermediate level of litter. She says, “You need enough litter to increase soil moisture, but not so much that it would suppress germination of the forbs because as the season progresses and gets really dry, if you don’t have forbs in the system, you lose a lot of ground cover.”

Surprises Lead to A New Study

Dr. Hallett was surprised that within her three treatments there seemed to be differences in when the functional groups were drying down the soil.  This inspired new questions, leading her to use her dissertation data to generate a larger grant through the USDA.  Her new study will perform extensive rainfall manipulations to measure the effects of early-season versus late-season dryout, and vary species within those parameters.  She says, “One of the reasons you have grass years versus forb years is the timing of rainfall.  For instance, if you have a really dry fall, you tend to have more forbs because their seedlings are more drought resistant.  Conversely, if you have a wet fall, you tend to see more grasses because you have continual germination throughout the season. So, the timing of rainfall matters in terms of what species are in the system.  We are going to look at the coupling between the species that gets selected for the fall versus what would be able to grow well in the spring, and we will be studying how that affects a whole range of things such as ground cover, above-ground production for forage, below-ground investment of different functional groups, and how these things might relate to nutrient cycling and carbon storage.”

You can read more about Dr. Hallett’s rangeland research and her current projects here.  

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Understanding the Influence of Coastal Fog on the Water Relations of a California Pine Forest

Forests along the California coast and offshore islands experience coastal fog in summer, when conditions are otherwise warm and dry. Since fog-water inputs directly augment water availability to forests during the dry season, a potential reduction of fog due to climate change would place trees at a higher risk of water stress and drought-induced mortality.  Dr. Sara Baguskas completed her Ph.D. research in the geography department at UC Santa Barbara on how variation in fog-water inputs impact the water relations of a rare, endemic tree species, Bishop pine, located on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. The goal of her study was to enhance our ability to predict how coastal forests may respond to climate change by better understanding how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.

Fog on Trees

Dr. Baguskas’ study seeks a better understanding of how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.

Fog Manipulation

Santa Cruz Island supports the southern extent of the species range in California, thus it is where we would expect to see a reduction in the species range in a warmer, drier, and possibly less foggy future. To advance our mechanistic understanding of how coastal fog influences the physiological function of Bishop pines, Dr. Baguskas conducted a controlled greenhouse experiment where she manipulated fog-water inputs to potted Bishop pine saplings during a three-week drydown period. She installed soil moisture (VWC) sensors horizontally into the side of several pots of sapling trees at two different depths (2 cm and 10 cm) and exposed the pines to simulated fog events with a fog machine.

In one group of plants, Baguskas let fog drip down to the soil, and in another treatment, she prevented fog drip to the soil so that only the canopies were immersed in fog.  She adds, “Leaf wetness sensors were an important complement to soil moisture probes in the second treatment because I needed to demonstrate that during fog events, the leaves were wet and soil moisture did not change.” Additionally, Baguskas used a photosynthesis and fluorescence system to measure photosynthetic rates in each group.

Fog in pine trees from the ground

The fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines.


Dr. Baguskas found that the fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines.  The combination of fog immersion and fog drip had the greatest effect on photosynthetic rates during the drydown period, so, in essence, she determined that fog drip to the soil slows the impact of drydown.  

“But,” she says, “when I looked at fog immersion alone, when the plant canopies were wet by fog with no drip to the soil, I also saw a significant improvement in the photosynthetic rates of these plants compared to the trees that received no fog at all, suggesting that there could have been indirect foliar uptake of water through these leaves which enhanced performance.”  An alternative interpretation of that, Baguskas adds, is that nighttime fog events reduced soil evaporation rates, resulting in less evaporative loss of soil moisture.

Dr. Baguskas says her “canopy immersion alone” data are consistent with other research: Todd Dawson, Gregory Goldsmith, Kevin Simmonin, Carter Berry, and Emily Limm have all found that when you wet plant leaves, it has a physiological effect, suggesting the plants are taking water up through their leaves and not relying as much on soil moisture.  (These authors performed different types of experiments, but their papers serve as reference studies). Baguskas says, “My results suggest that is what’s going on, but it’s not as definitive as other studies that have actually worked on tracking the water through leaves using a stable isotope approach.”  

Lessons Learned

Though Dr. Baguskas did not monitor soil temperature in this study, she says that in the future, she will always combine temperature data with soil moisture data.  She comments, “Consistently, the soil moisture in the “canopy-immersed only” plants was slightly elevated over the soil moisture in the control plants.  It made me wonder if this was a biologically meaningful result. Does it support the fact that if plants are taking up water through their leaves, they don’t rely on as much soil moisture?  Or did my treatment change soil temperature, and is that having a confounding effect on my results?  What I’ve learned from this, is that in the future I will always use soil probes with temperature sensors because you may not know until you see your results if temperature might be important.”

Future Fog Studies

Baguskas is a USDA-NIFA postdoctoral Research Fellow working with Dr. Michael Loik in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz. She continues to study coastal fog, but now in strawberry fields. Her current research questions are focused on integrating coastal fog into water-use decisions in coastal California agriculture. She loves the work and continues to rely on soil moisture sensors to make meaningful and reliable environmental measurements in the field and greenhouse.

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Screening for Drought Tolerance

Screening for drought tolerance in wheat species is harder than it seems.  Many greenhouse drought screenings suffer from confounding issues such as soil type and the resulting soil moisture content, bulk density, and genetic differences for traits like root mass, rooting depth, and plant size. In addition, because it’s so hard to isolate drought stress, some scientists think finding a repeatable screening method is next to impossible. However, a recent pilot study done by researcher Andrew Green may prove them wrong.

An automatic irrigation setup with green plants sticking out

Automatic Irrigation Setup

The Quest for Repeatability

Green says, “There have been attempts before of intensively studying drought stress, but it’s hard to isolate drought stress from heat, diseases, and other things.”  Green and his advisors, Dr. Gerard Kluitenberg and Dr. Allan Fritz, think monitoring water potential in the soil is the only quantifiable way to impose a consistent and repeatable treatment. With the development of a soil-moisture retention curve for a homogeneous growth media, they feel the moisture treatment could be maintained in order to isolate drought stress.  Green says, “Our goal is to develop a repeatable screening system that will allow us to be confident that what we’re seeing is an actual drought response before the work of integrating those genes takes place, since that’s a very long and tedious process.”

Why Hasn’t This Been Done Before?

Andrew Green, as a plant breeder, thinks the problem lies in the fact that most geneticists aren’t soil scientists. He says, “In past experiments, the most sophisticated drought screening was to grow the plants up to a certain point, stop watering them, and see which ones lived the longest. There’s never been a collaborative approach where physiologists and soil scientists have been involved.  So researchers have imposed this harsh, biologically irrelevant stress where it’s basically been an attrition study.” Green says he hopes in his research to use the soil as a feedback mechanism to maintain a stress level that mimics what exists in nature.

Data acquisition a cabinet setup for green's expanded experiment

Data Acquisition Cabinet setup for Green’s expanded experiment.

The Pilot Study

Green used volumetric water content sensors, matric potential sensors, as well as column tensiometers to monitor soil moisture conditions in a greenhouse experiment using 182 cm tall polyvinyl chloride (PVC) growth tubes and homogenous growth media. Measurements were taken four times a day to determine volumetric water content, soil water potential, senescence, biomass, shoot, root ratio, rooting traits, yield components, leaf water potential, leaf relative water content, and other physiological observations between moisture limited and control treatments.  

Soil Media:  Advantages and Disadvantages

To solve the problem of differing soil types, Andrew and his team chose a homogeneous soil amendment media called Profile Greens Grade, which has been extensively studied for use in space and other applications.  Green says, “It’s a very porous material with a large particle size.  It’s a great growth media because at the end of the experiment you can separate the roots of the plant from the soil media, and those roots can be measured, imaged, and studied in conjunction with the data that is collected.”   Green adds, however, that working with soil media isn’t perfect: there have been hydraulic conductivity issues, and the media must be closely monitored.

What’s Unique About this Study?

Green believes that because the substrate was very specific and his water content and water potential sensors were co-located, it allowed him to determine if all of his moisture release curves were consistent.  He says, “We try to pack these columns to a uniform bulk density and keep an eye on things when we’re watering, hoping it’s going to stay consistent at every depth.  So far it’s been working pretty well: the water content and the water potential are repeatable in the different columns.”

Irrigation setup for the expanded study with research data cabinet

Entire Irrigation setup for the expanded study.

Plans for the Future

Green’s pilot study was completed in the spring, and he’s getting ready for the expanded version of the project:  a replicated trial with wild relatives of wheat. He’s hoping to use soil moisture sensors to make automatic irrigation decisions: i.e. the water potential of the columns will activate twelve solenoid valves which will disperse water to keep the materials in their target stress zone, or ideal water potential.

The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal of Green’s research is to breed wild species of wheat into productive forms that can be used as farmer-grown varieties. He is optimistic about the results of his pilot study.  He says, “Based on the very small unreplicated data that we have so far, I think it is going to be possible to develop a repeatable method to screen these materials.  With the data that we’re seeing now, and the information that we’re capturing about what’s going on below ground, I think being able to hold these things in a biologically relevant stress zone is going to be possible.”

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Soil Moisture and Temperature Sensors Aid Landmine Detection

Anti-personnel landmines are one of the most dangerous environmental hazards worldwide. Each year thousands of people are injured by landmines buried in eighty different countries.  Ben Wallen, Ph.D. candidate and active military officer at the Colorado School of Mines, is using soil moisture and temperature sensors to model, simulate, and predict how environmental conditions affect landmine detection performance.

Researcher and an army graduate student standing next to "The U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center" sign

Landmine research conducted at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) by LTC Benjamin Wallen, a graduate student at Colorado School of Mines, and Stacy Howington, a senior research engineer at ERDC.

Landmine Detection

Anti-personnel landmines are difficult to detect. They are small and often contain very little metal. It is difficult to differentiate between a landmine and, for example, a rock.

Success depends on many factors, including the landmine’s physical composition and how long it’s been in the ground. The numerical and analytical models used to find the mines rely on detailed data about conditions in the subsurface.  Wallen and his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kate Smits, realized that changing environmental conditions—particularly changes in soil moisture content—were commonly overlooked in developing these models. By gaining a greater understanding of these dynamic environmental conditions, Wallen thought he could better calibrate the numerical models used in detection technologies such as ground penetrating radar.

Researcher and army engineer student working on an installation site

Installing METER sensors at landmine detection field site at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) by LTC Benjamin Wallen and Matthew Geheran, a student engineer at ERDC.


The goal of Wallen’s research was to improve understanding of the complex flow processes of water, water vapor, and air in the shallow subsurface.  He installed soil moisture and temperature sensors in a field site in order to understand how landmines buried at different depths affect spatial patterns of soil moisture.  He compared holes with mines at a shallow depth (2.5 cm) to more deeply buried mines (10 cm).  He also measured the environmental response to shallow empty holes roughly the size that you’d dig for the placement of a mine.  He realized if there was an identifiable response between a disturbed hole with nothing in it and a hole with a mine buried, researchers would be able to do experiments with different soils in a lab without needing a buried landmine in order to investigate the environmental response associated with a buried landmine.


Wallen was able to see differences in the “with mine” and “without mine” treatments.  He says, “The soil moisture in the disturbed soil 2.5 cm below the surface with no landmine inserted matched very well to a shallow-buried mine.  The only time it really deviated was when there was a saturation event. At that point, there was a break from that relationship, but then, in 36 hours, the soil moisture returned to matching very closely between the disturbed soil hole and the shallow-buried mine.”  Wallen says there was also a relationship in the case of the more deeply buried mine. He adds, “For a deeply buried mine, both the soil moisture and temperature in the disturbed soil 2.5 cm below the surface had a strong correlation with the response to the dug, disturbed hole.”

Shallow Buried Mine- Soil Moisture as a Function of Depth diagram

Disturbed and Undisturbed Soil- Soil Moisture as a Function of Depth Diagram

An Array of Sensors is Crucial

Ben says it was important to his study to use a suite of measurement tools that complimented each other.  In addition to soil moisture and temperature sensors, he used an IR camera to detect surface temperature differences prior to the saturation event, during saturation event, and then afterward, helping identify the different scenarios of shallow-buried mines, deep buried mines, and the disturbed soil. He comments, “There are numerous global climate models that may be used to predict evaporation from energy balances in order to understand what is occurring. By combining the sensors in this minefield detection scenario, we were able to really understand what was going on at different depths with soil moisture and temperature, and that enabled us to better understand how the system responds.”

The Next Step

Now that Wallen has done a soil characterization of the site, he wants to incorporate the data into a 3D model to ensure that the model accurately represents the actual physical conditions he’s observed. The next step is modeling under different climatic conditions: seeing what the environmental response is for various mine scenarios in a different soil environment.

Making the World a Safer Place

The goal, according to Wallen, is to provide pertinent information that will improve landmine detection technologies. Understanding how temperature contrast impacts remote sensing technology and understanding how the soil moisture signature impacts ground penetrating radar.  Ben says, “Ideally, this information takes us one step farther in being able to identify potential locations for landmines, but there is a long way to go. This is just one piece of the pie, but every step forward moves us toward the goal of making the world a little bit safer for everyone.”


This research was made possible through sensors provided by Decagon (now METER), funding from the Society of American Military Engineers Denver Metro Post, field site access from the Waterways Experimentation Station (WES), and assistance with equipment and research support from scientists and engineers at the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, MS. Their support and knowledge based upon over a decade of research exploring disturbed soil for threat detection and environmental effects on sensor performance was essential to enable quality research at their site.

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Can a Leaf Wetness Sensor Distinguish Fog From Dew?

The Namib Desert on the Southwestern coast of Africa is hyper-arid in terms of rainfall but experiences frequent coastal fog events.  The fog has been suggested to provide sufficient water for survival to certain plants which are endemic to the Namib, some of which occur only in the fog zone (up to 60 km inland).

Orange sand with bush grass everywhere

Dr. Keir Soderberg wanted to measure how much fog water plants were taking up either through surficial roots or their leaves.

Dr. Keir Soderberg, former researcher at the University of Virginia (now a consultant at S.S. Papadopulos & Associates), wanted to use stable isotopes to measure how much fog water plants were taking up either through surficial roots or their leaves. To enrich his data set, he decided to use leaf wetness sensors to show when the fog was occurring.  He also wondered if he could use the leaf wetness sensors to distinguish between fog and dew.

Large orange sand mounds

The Namib Desert

Keir set up five fog monitoring stations along a climate gradient in the central Namib. Each measured leaf wetness, air temperature, and relative humidity measurements along with solar radiation and soil parameters (moisture, temperature, and electrical conductivity).  Stable isotope analysis of samples was also used to help quantify the amounts of fog, groundwater, and soil water that plants were using.

Dew or Fog:

Keir says, “We began collecting one-minute data to look at the different patterns of how the water was being deposited on the leaf wetness sensor. The dew tended to be more of a gradual wetting, but with the fog you would see these cyclical waves of steep wetting and then a little bit of a drying on the sensor.”  Keir says he could look at those patterns and correlate them with visual evidence from his visits to the Namib during fog or dew events, though those wetting patterns may be specific to this location.

Rain, fog, and dew totals from (July 2008 to June 2009) from the Gobabeb weather station

Measuring Volume:

Keir also tried to determine the volume of water deposited on the leaf wetness sensors. He did a calibration in the lab by spraying water on the sensor and then weighing it. He said, “It was sort of a trial and error thing.  I found the performance was definitely sensor specific.  You have to get an individual calibration, but I felt the uncertainty could be controlled.”  

In comparing different methods of measuring fog deposition, Keir concluded that it is difficult to compare across measurement methods. “There’s a lot of variability between methods, even if you are confident in your own device and its accuracy.”  This gives the advantage to the most common measurement device, the Standard Fog Collector, since much of the work done through the years has used these instruments. However, the cylindrical-style collectors have the advantage of being insensitive to wind direction.

Volume of water deposited for three fog events on a vertical collector and a leaf wetness sensor diagram

Future Data:

In spite of this, Keir admits he’s still interested in seeing if he can get good dew collection data from leaf wetness sensors.  He says, “I went on from Namibia to a research station in Kenya where we had an eddy covariance flux tower.  Though there is no fog in Kenya, I convinced them to put leaf wetness sensors up and down the tower to collect data on dew deposition.  We left the sensors out there and have been collecting one-minute data for a while. There’s this massive dataset out there that we still need to look at.”

Keir collaborated on a paper for The Journal of Arid Environments, called “The Nature of Moisture at Gobabeb, in the Central Namib Desert,” a compilation of different fog and dew collection techniques over the years, including leaf wetness sensors, for automating the identification of fog events.  You can find it here.  New fog monitoring stations are going up in the Namib through the programs FogLife and FogNet.

For a basic understanding of the role that fog plays in plant and ecosystem processes, read this article by Dr. Chris Still, who has studied this issue for many years in the Channel Islands National Park off of the coast of California.

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Low Impact Design: Sensors Validate California Groundwater Resource Management

Michelle Newcomer, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, (previously at San Francisco State University), recently published research using rain gauges, soil moisture, and water potential sensors to determine if low impact design (LID) structures such as rain gardens and infiltration trenches are an effective means of infiltrating and storing rainwater in dry climates instead of letting it run off into the ocean.

Body of water with rain droplets hitting the surface

Can Low Impact Design Structures store rainwater?

Low Impact Design Structures

Global groundwater resources in urban, coastal environments are highly vulnerable to increased human pressures and climate variability. Impervious surfaces, such as buildings, roads, and parking lots prevent infiltration, reduce recharge to underlying aquifers, and increase contaminants in surface runoff that often overflow sewage systems. To mitigate these effects, cities worldwide are adopting low impact design (LID) approaches to direct runoff into natural vegetated systems such as rain gardens that reduce, filter, and slow stormwater runoff. LID hypothetically increases infiltration and recharge rates to aquifers.

Three pictures the first depicts an aerial view of an infiltration trench, the second depicts an infiltration trench site, and the third depicts a irrigated green lawn

Infiltration and Recharge

Michelle and the team at San Francisco State University, advised by Dr. Jason Gurdak, realized that the effects of LID on recharge rates and quality were unknown, particularly during intense precipitation events for cities along the Pacific coast in response to inter-annual variability of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Using water potential and water content sensors she was able to quantify the current and projected rates of infiltration and recharge to the California Coastal Westside Basin aquifer system. The team compared a LID infiltration trench surrounded by a rain garden with a traditional turf-lawn setting in San Francisco.  She says, “Cities like San Francisco are implementing these LID structures, and we wanted to test the quantity of water that was going through them.  We were interested specifically in different climate scenarios, like El Niño versus La Niña, because rain events are much more intense during El Niño years and could cause flash flooding or surface pollutant overflow problems.”

Infiltration trench site diagram

Sensors Tell the Story

The research team looked at the differences in the quantity of water that LID structures could allow to pass through.  Michelle says. ”The sensors yielded data proving LID areas were effective at capturing the water, infiltrating it more slowly, and essentially storing it in the aquifer.”  The team tested how a low-impact development-style infiltration trench compared to an irrigated lawn and found that the recharge efficiency of the infiltration trench, at 58% to 79%, was much higher than that of the lawn, at 8% to 33%.

Daily time series of precipitation and volumetric water content

Rain Gauges Yield Surprises

Though it wasn’t part of the researchers’ original plan, they used rain gauges to measure precipitation, which yielded some surprising data.  Michelle comments, “We were just going to use the San Francisco database, but it became necessary to use the rain gauges because of all the fog.  The fog brought a lot of precipitation with it that didn’t come in the form of raindrops.  As it condensed on the leaves, it provided a substantial portion of the water in the budget, and that was surprising to me.  The rain gauge captured the condensate on the funnel of the instrument, so we were able to see that a certain quantity of water was coming in that is typically neglected in many studies.”

Future El Niño Precipitation

Michelle also found some really interesting results regarding El Niño and La Niña.  She says, “I did a historical analysis to establish baselines for frequency, intensity, and duration of precipitation events during El Niño and La Niña years.  I then ran projected climate data through a Hydrus-2D model, and the models showed that with future El Niño intensities, recharge rates were effectively higher for a given precipitation event. During these events, in typical urban settings, water runs off so fast that only these rain gardens and trenches would be able to capture the rain that would otherwise be lost to the ocean. This contrasts with a La Niña climate scenario where there’s typically less rain that is more diffuse. Most of that rain may eventually be lost to evaporation during dry years.  So using sensors and 2D modeling we have validated the hypothesis that LID structures provide a service for storing water, particularly during El Niño years where there are more intense rainstorms.”

Michelle’s research received some press online and also was featured in the AGU EOS Editor’s spotlight.   Her results are published in the journal Water Resources Research.

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The Spirit of the Grant Harris Fellowship

The Grant Harris Fellowship was conceived in 2009 by  METER‘s (formerly Decagon Devices) marketing group as an opportunity for METER to give back to the science community.  The idea was to create a partnership between METER and researchers so that we could provide instrumentation and be a kind of “scientific friend” to graduate students: giving them experience crafting a proposal, reviewing their ideas, offering feedback, and encouraging those projects that seemed the most promising and exciting to us as scientists.

Grant Harris fellowship

Grant Harris standing in the doorway of METER’s first office in 1987.

When we thought about this opportunity we wondered…who would we name this fellowship after? It was an easy decision when we realized that the principles upon which METER is based come from academia through our founder, retired soil science professor Gaylon Campbell and his father-in-law, Grant Harris, who was a professor and department head of Rangeland Ecology at Washington State University.

Grant Harris fellowship

He lived in a tiny outpost of a house, taking care of sheep-grazing rangeland in a high alpine meadow area, far removed from civilization.

Grant Harris started his career at the beginning of the depression, so when he got married he quickly needed to find a way to support his growing family.  At that time in history, there was not as much college funding or support.  Instead of having the opportunity to attend graduate school, Dr. Harris was forced to start work immediately after obtaining his B.S. for the U.S. Forest Service, managing rangeland in Montana. He lived in a tiny outpost of a house, taking care of sheep-grazing rangeland in a high alpine meadow area, far removed from civilization.

“Scientific Instrumentation has made a lot of progress since I was first exposed to research, working at the Desert Range Experiment Station in 1935 as an undergraduate at Utah State University.  Back then research was 3 parts wits, 6 parts labor, and 1 part instrumentation. I still remember in 1939 measuring the absorption of water into the soil profile using old whisky bottles and corks.

It is amazing to see the time and labor saving devices now available.  We are proud of Decagon’s heritage in producing instrumentation for soil physics.” – Grant Harris

It was only later, after five years of service in the U.S. Navy during WWII, that he finally got the chance to further his education. He returned to school to earn an M.S. and a PhD, and because of his difficult path in obtaining those degrees, he placed a high value on education and an even greater value on the providing of opportunities for research.

Grant Harris fellowship

He placed a high value on education and an even greater value on the providing of opportunities for research.

During his career, Dr. Harris was able to reach out and touch the lives of many students, not only in the U.S. but from all over the world.  He spent time in other countries researching and helping to provide basic science to people throughout his career as a rangeland ecologist.  The Grant Harris Fellowship provides that same learning opportunity for graduate students today where, in the spirit of this legacy that Grant Harris provided, we continue his passion for encouraging research in a direction that will help us understand more about the natural environment.

Colin Campbell, Decagon’s VP of Research and Development commented on the “Spirit of Grant Harris,” during a recent interview.  “As we thought about this opportunity to give back to the research community, we thought of my grandpa, who had a great passion for providing people the chance to learn and grow through the beauty of science.  Thus the objective of the Harris Fellowship is to provide student researchers additional opportunities to dream up new ways of doing things that are going to be successful and also to provide support to those researchers so they can accomplish their goals.”

Click here to learn more about how to apply for the annual Grant Harris Fellowship

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