Newswise — A collaborative research project with scientists from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), and Syracuse University will identify options for more effectively managing water resources in semi-arid areas impacted by climate change. The project is funded with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for nearly $550,000, and researchers expect the work will take a full three years. 

The research team is jointly led by Dr. Christa Kelleher, SU professor, and Dr. Philippe Vidon, ESF professor and director of the Hydrologic Systems Science Council. Together, the team will work with the Nature Conservancy of Wyoming to monitor beaver dam analogues (BDAs), which are human-made structures that mimic the form of natural beaver dams. The BDAs under observation are located on a ranch in Wyoming that is currently owned by the Nature Conservancy. While the land used to be home to multiple colonies of beavers, the semi-aquatic species has moved on to wetter lands. 

"When beavers relocate, which can be for many reasons, we have found that they often will not return," said Vidon. "This can have negative impacts on ecosystems as beavers help to prevent erosion and are critical components of a resilient landscape." 

During this project, the researchers will use drones and numerical modeling to monitor the studied BDAs, which are similar to those used by municipalities, state agencies, and private landowners in sections of streams where beavers are no longer present to redirect water into floodplains, reduce stream bank erosion, and maintain late summer low flows. Although BDAs are being implemented extensively across the western U.S., it is unclear how they alter evapotranspiration, and groundwater and surface water levels and interactions. In addition, the project will provide guidance to local and regional practitioners about how BDAs can be used to achieve management goals like reconnecting streams with floodplains and supporting riparian vegetation for wildlife habitat and cattle forage. 

"Our goal is to follow the water," said Vidon. "BDAs can influence the path water takes and change the way stream responds to the surrounding environment and climate factors. Understanding if water will flow around a BDA or be lost to the atmosphere via evapotranspiration will help landowners better manage our natural resources while ensuring water rights are maintained.”