Water and life on earth

From cities to rural and wild areas, Kevan Moffett wants to better understand the role of water on the planet.

Kevan Moffett’s expertise—ecohydrology—encompasses her global interests in water as a critical sustaining resource for humans and ecosystems. Her research ranges from the effects of heat and water balances on urban life, to forest rejuvenation after wildfires, to the ability of rivers to cleanse themselves of some pollutants before their waters reach the sea. An assistant professor of environmental hydrology at WSU Vancouver, Moffett has the uncommon distinction of concurrently leading three separate National Science Foundation grants, to study these three phenomena.


Just this spring she received NSF’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. These competitive awards provide five years of support for pre-tenure teacher-scholars. Moffett will receive about $690,000 to study how the urban water cycle interacts with the heat generated by urban areas. The grant period began Aug. 1.

“One of my great interests is how water plays a key role on our planet, including the basic landscape changes it can make, how it can help support ecosystems, and of course how water is important to people,” Moffett said. These interests led her to think about how ecohydrology research today often overlooks the majority of people on the planet—those who live in cities.

Currently, most environmental science research takes place in rural areas that are still considered “natural.” In cities, by contrast, humans have reconfigured the landscape into alternating patterns of pavement and vegetation, with undeniable implications for the movement of water—into storm drains and waterways, but also into the soils and atmosphere. Through the CAREER grant support, Moffett will explore how lessons from natural science conducted in rural natural areas might apply to urban environments, and whether better understanding urban heat and water balances could have applications for making cities more livable despite accelerating global change.

fieldresearch2As part of the CAREER award, Moffett will also design outdoor laboratory science modules to help students (preschoolers and WSU undergraduates) appreciate that they can learn about the environment wherever they are, even in an urban setting. She is particularly interested in making environmental science studies accessible to more students, including those with different mobility needs. She is guided by the vision that everyone can learn to feel a sense of place, understanding, and belonging in their home environment and perhaps in environmental science studies.


Moffett’s CAREER work on ecohydrology in the urban environment follows another current project funded by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northwest Climate Science Center, seeking to quantify the influence of city street trees on the temperature of urban stormwater runoff. She said, “It is well known that trees provide shade and that trees’ leaves catch some rainwater and prevent it from reaching the ground. We were really surprised to find that research had not yet put two and two together to see the impacts of tree shading on stormwater runoff temperatures.”

The research has been analyzing heat and water in a set of 12 residential streets in Portland and will finish in 2018. It has sparked a broad and deep collaboration between Moffett, WSU’s Director of Metropolitan Extension Brad Gaoloch, and over 100 other extension staff, researchers and municipal managers across Washington and Oregon.

Earlier NSF funding


Moffett’s first NSF grant was awarded for the study of the parts of rivers that are near the river mouth and influenced by tides but still freshwater. In these zones, rivers might slow and so enable more nutrients to be naturally removed by the river ecosystem before the nutrients harm the coast. This project will finish in 2018. Moffett and her student Allan Jones have established a definition for these “riverine tidal freshwater zones,” the competing influences of tides and river flow on its dynamics, and its changes in character along the length of the river. Moffett’s collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin are quantifying these zones’ effects on nitrogen pollution and carbon in river waters that flow into sensitive coastal bays.


Another of Moffett’s NSF grants, shared with Andrés Holz of Portland State University, seeks to better understand the effects of repeated wildfires on Cascades forest ecology and hydrology. This phenomenon of “short-interval reburns” has become more common over the last 30 years but is only just beginning to be studied. Over the next few years, Moffett, Holz and their student research teams will examine whether an altered hydrological cycle and changes in soil moisture may change how plants regrow after a fire and also make them more vulnerable under some conditions to repeated fires in the future. Moffett will also help identify whether and over what time scales reburns might mitigate or worsen the downstream flood risks that often follow fires.

All of Moffett’s studies have an educational component. For example, her research on fires will include coordination with forest and water managers designed to help improve management practices, and may also include a museum educational display. Her research on coastal rivers has included colleagues’ collaboration with a National Estuarine Research Reserve to design and implement public educational kayak outings on the study rivers.

The scope of ecohydrology

Moffett joined WSU Vancouver in January 2015 after earning her Ph.D. at Stanford University, where she studied coastal wetlands, and serving as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. As head of the Ecohydrology Group at WSU Vancouver, she and her students are exploring and even redefining the scope of ecohydrology, which she defines as “the interconnection of water with ecosystems and organisms.”

Although rivers, wetlands, forests and cities may seem very different environments, Moffett said, “To me, these are all environments where the spatial organization of water, vegetation, and other organisms are closely entwined and need to work together to sustain the ecosystem, or even people. Yet, we still have a lot to learn about how water and organisms work together in the environment. I’m pleased to have been granted the ability to work on this topic from a number of different angles by NSF and other funders.”





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