UW’s WyCEHG program could help Wyoming get the most out of its water

Oct 25, 2013

Hydrogeophysicist Steve Holbrook marks the GPS coordinates of points where he and his team will seismically measure the subsurface. Holbrook co-directs the Wyoming Center for Hydrology and Geophysics, which hopes to better understand snowpack and aquifers in the state.
Hydrogeophysicist Steve Holbrook marks the GPS coordinates of points where he and his team will seismically measure the subsurface. Holbrook co-directs the Wyoming Center for Hydrology and Geophysics, which hopes to better understand snowpack and aquifers in the state.
Credit Rebecca Martinez

In such an arid state as Wyoming, water is precious. Last year, the University of Wyoming created the Wyoming Center for Hydrology and Geophysics, combining field experts and state-of-the art technology to better understand where water goes in after it falls from the sky, since much of it ends up in snowpack or underground.

There isn’t too much information available about that, but it’s important to state and local water managers, who need to know just how much water they have to work with. Rebecca Martinez reports.

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REBECCA MARTINEZ: UW Hydrogeophysicist Steve Holbrook is hunched over his GPS, marking the coordinates over points along long ground cables in a field near Vedauwoo, in the Laramie Range. The wind whips around him as his team stands by waiting for him to finish, so they can begin seismic testing of the ground below. They know there’s got to be water under there, because someone dug a working well nearby.

STEVE HOLBROOK: They know about where they hit the water. We’d like to see if we can spot that aquifer with our geophysical data and track it laterally.

MARTINEZ: Holbrook co-directs the Wyoming Center for Hydrology and Geophysics, or WyCEHG. The program combines known water table data with their measurements about the subsurface. Porous layers of rock underground could contain water, and WyCEHG is trying to figure out where they are, how water gets there, and how much there is. One of the grad students on Holbrook’s team generates seismic waves by slamming a mallet onto a steel plate on the grass, (slam, slam) and Holbrook checks out the results on the laptop. (fade out slam)

HOLBROOK: Scientifically, what we’re hoping to do is understand better where the water’s going, how much of it is staying in soil moisture, how much of it is getting stolen down into these deeper groundwater aquifers, how much of it turns into runoff, how much of it evaporates off from the snow, and so forth.

MARTINEZ: Previously, the best information about groundwater aquifers has come from drillers’ logs, compiled when digging private and municipal wells.

HOLBROOK: That tends to be kind of hit or miss, scatter shot… There’s a well here but not over there, and there’s not really a lot of information about what’s in between the wells, or what’s beyond the wells. And that’s part of what we’re after, is producing techniques and making available technologies to stakeholders in Wyoming that enable us to look beyond the few wells that exist.

MARTINEZ: Hydrologist Scott Miller, Holbrook’s colleague in co-directing WyCEHG, says the program can take a more holistic approach to mapping and measuring aquifers, including taking helicopter surveys of geological changes in a landscape, seismically measuring snow pack and the ground’s subsurface, and creating models on the Mount Moran supercomputer. Miller says combining this data with existing knowledge about state aquifers can be extremely useful to water managers.

SCOTT MILLER: And so if you can map the amount of water in the aquifer, the depth of the aquifer, and then the pressure, then you know how much water is available and the direction it’s flowing, which allows you to put wells to acquire that water resources more effectively.

MARTINEZ: But gathering all this information is incredibly expensive. Luckily, the National Science Foundation awarded the program a 20-million dollar grant, the largest in UW’s history. The University offered a 4 million dollar matching grant. After four years, WyCEHG it will need to find its own support… But UW has also agreed to hire eight new faculty and staff positions permanently.

Equipment and data will be available to outside companies and agencies for their own use, as well. Miller says that’s important, since changes in water availability can impact users downstream.

MILLER: So we have two areas that we really care about: One is how much water is going be available to citizens and the ecology of the state of Wyoming, and then, how we can deliver our water a cross state lines down to those millions of people who are in the downstream states.

MARTINEZ: For example, the State Engineer’s Office is charged with supervising and protecting water flowing into and out of Wyoming. River Coordinator Matt Hoobler ensures that the state complies with inter-state water compacts and decrees for the North Platte River. Hoobler says 26 municipalities depend on that river for water, and they have varying water rights. Hoobler says having a more precise idea of how much water will be available in a given summer would be crucial in planning.

MATT HOOBLER: For the sake of examples, if we know that runoff is gonna be extremely light this year, should that municipality water the cemetery, the town parks, the golf courses? Do they put every water user on a gallonage (sic) restriction?

MARTINEZ: Hoobler says it can have a much bigger impact than household water use. If the cost of water rises, it could affect how much oil refineries choose to process or how much alfalfa a farmer decides to grow and where. Hoobler says other federal snow pack and river flow monitoring programs are shrinking quickly, but as populations grow, so does the need for good data.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.