The Science of Water Management

The lakes, rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest—vital to the region—are increasingly threatened. Algal blooms—some toxic—cloud the water. Invasive species proliferate. Both alter aquatic food webs in ways that can harm native species.

State, federal and local agencies work to manage these problems. But sound management requires information: What is the nature of the problem? Is it stable or growing? What are potential solutions? What long-term effect might result if the problem goes unchecked?edited landscape

That’s where WSU Vancouver’s Aquatic Ecology Lab comes in. Headed by School of the Environment and School of Biological Sciences Professor Steve Bollens and Associate Clinical Professor Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, the lab uses the many tools of basic science to inform water management.

One long-term project studies Vancouver Lake as a model to understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms in freshwater systems. Another studies invasive species, such as Asian copepods, brought in from Asia in the ballast water of ships and now common in the Columbia River. Both projects are examining biological factors and the physical environment that may offer new ideas for management.

Algal blooms

Toxic algae, such as cyanobacteria, are of particular concern. The lab is examining how other organisms present or introduced into the water could mitigate the effects of cyanobacteria by eating the algae or competing with them.

Blooms result from many conditions: excess nutrients in the water, depth of the water, whether or not the body of water serves as a reservoir, and more. “Our research is helping to confirm that there is a certain set of conditions that can make freshwater systems conducive to cyanobacteria blooms,” Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens said. “If we know what they are, we can manage cyanobacteria blooms.” For example, one strategy might be biomanipulation—stocking the water with large fish that eat small fish, which then allow zooplankton to bloom, which in turn eat the cyanobacteria.

Vancouver Lake is a model for shallow water systems throughout the Pacific Northwest, “but what we are learning could also be applied to other temperate regions of the world,” she said.

Invasive species

Similarly, the lab is looking at the trophic importance of copepods—that is, what eats them and what they eat and so on down their food chain—and what happens when non-native species enter the system. For example, the lab has noted that warmer water is associated with a greater abundance of invasive copepods—raising a concern that with climate change, the invaders may become more widespread.

In addition, the Bonneville Power Administration funded the lab to test new technology to detect whether other invaders—zebra mussels and quagga mussels—are present in the Columbia River. The FlowCam is an imaging microscope that can detect minute particles in small quantities of water. “The good news is they’re not yet here,” Steve Bollens said. “The bad news is they’re coming.”

In 2016, with funds from the Washington Sea Grant, the Aquatic Ecology Lab, in collaboration with Dr. Tamara Holmlund Nelson of the College of Education, will work with five high schools along the river to sample and analyze Columbia River water near their towns, seeking to learn about the distribution of invasive species. Besides information about the river, the study will explore whether engaged participation and knowledge of places close to home will help young people become better informed stewards of those places.


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