The mountainous headwaters East River catchment, located in the Upper Colorado River Basin, serves as a testbed for the SFA team. Credit Roy Kaltschmidt (2014), Berkeley Lab.

The mountainous headwaters East River catchment, located in the Upper Colorado River Basin, serves as a testbed for the SFA team. Credit Roy Kaltschmidt (2014), Berkeley Lab.

Berkeley Lab will lead the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (SFA) to quantify how perturbations to mountainous watershed—floods, drought, fire and early snowmelt—impact the downstream delivery of water, nutrients, carbon, and metals. Researchers will observe and model watershed response to perturbations over seasonal to decadal timeframes, and from genome to watershed scales. The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Biological and Environmental Research greenlighted the Watershed Function SFA earlier this week. DOE will fund the project at over $20 million for three years.

System-of-systems illustration

The Watershed Function SFA takes a “system-of-systems” approach, as depicted in this illustration, to quantify how fine-scale processes occurring in different watershed subsystems aggregate into downgradient export of water, nitrogen, carbon, and metals. (Credit: D. Swantek)

The SFA’s research site is the mountainous East River watershed in the Upper Colorado River Basin. Mountainous watersheds are recognized as the ‘water towers’ of the Earth. The Upper Colorado is perhaps the most important basin in the Western U.S.—it supplies water to more than one in ten Americans, irrigation water and nutrients to more than 5.5 million acres of land, and more than 4,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power. The East River mountainous headwaters catchment provides an ideal testbed for the team to discover and predict water and biogeochemical cycles, and how disturbances influence downstream water discharge, carbon cycles, and nutrient delivery.

“The East River catchment represents an incredible natural laboratory for pursuing research that links climate, hydrology, biogeochemistry and vegetation, with the site constituting an exciting new “community watershed” for DOE, Berkeley Lab, and their collaborating institutions,” says deputy lead Ken Williams.

“The project will develop the first ever scale-adaptive approach that will enable scientists to zoom into a watershed, simulating microbially mediated and other fine-scale processes only when and where that information is needed to accurately predict watershed behavior,” says Susan Hubbard, SFA lead. “Capabilities to predict the multi-scale response of watersheds respond to extreme weather, land use change, and climate change are not currently available, but are increasingly needed as resource managers strive to optimize hydropower, agriculture, water quality, and water resources over seasonal to annual timescales. This project will tackle that gap by developing modeling capabilities, observational tools, and deep insights about how vulnerable mountainous watersheds respond to increasingly common perturbations.”

The team is taking a ‘system of systems’ perspective to explore and simulate the aggregated response of complex multi-scale, multi-physics processes that occur across bedrock to canopy compartments. A key aspect is the development and testing of a scale-adaptive watershed simulation capability.

The project takes advantage of and integrates the team’s deep expertise in environmental microbiology, hydrology, geochemistry, ecology, geophysics, data science and computational science. The project builds on the team’s previous Genome-to-Watershed SFA efforts, and the scale-adaptive modeling will use the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a Department of Energy user facility located at Berkeley Lab.

The Watershed Function SFA is led by Susan Hubbard, the Associate Lab Director for the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area at Berkeley Lab, and involves more than 65 scientists. Partner institutions are: University of California, Berkeley; Colorado School of Mines; Fort Lewis College; University of Arizona; Desert Research Institute; Navarro, Inc.; Subsurface Insights. Scientists at several other institutions also are participating.

Several Earth & Environmental Sciences Area scientists help to lead the SFA, including Ken Williams,  deputy SFA lead, and team leads Eoin Brodie, Jill Banfield, Harry Beller, Tetsu Tokunaga, Nick Bouskill, Phil Long, Deb Agarwal, Peter Nico, Carl Steefel and Haruko Wainwright. Other team leads include Heidi Steltzer of Fort Lewis College and Reed Maxwell of Colorado School of Mines.

The Watershed Function SFA team. Credit Deb Agarwal, Berkeley Lab (2016).

The Watershed Function SFA team. Credit Deb Agarwal, Berkeley Lab (2016).



Berkeley Lab researchers receive $20 million to study watershed impact – The Daily Californian, July 25, 2016
$20 Million Grant Goes to California Lab to Study Warming on the Colorado – Rocky Mountain PBS News, July 26, 2016