Oregon's water resources at center of revamped PSU, USGS partnership

Two women talking
PSU's Kelly Gleason, left, talks with a fellow researcher during a water science symposium.

From the impacts of the Eagle Creek fire on watersheds in the Columbia River Gorge to pharmaceutical and microplastic pollution in Oregon's waters, scientists from Portland State University and the U.S. Geological Survey's Oregon Water Science Center are teaming up on a series of projects this year to better understand Oregon's water resources.

The hope is that these joint research projects are just the start of a more collaborative and intentional relationship between PSU and the USGS' Oregon Water Science Center (ORWCS), which researches and monitors a variety of water issues in streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater around Oregon and across the Pacific Northwest.

The partnership began in 2007 when the ORWSC relocated to the Science and Education Center on PSU's campus.

"The goal was to bring PSU and USGS closer together because we thought there were some good scientific collaborations that could happen and we liked having access to students," said Dar Crammond, director of the ORWSC.

Since then, USGS scientists have taught PSU classes and served on graduate student committees. PSU faculty have participated in ORWSC seminar series and vice versa. There have been some joint research projects, and students have gone on to work at the ORWSC. But much of these activities happened on an ad-hoc basis and the full potential of the partnership was never realized. When the cooperative agreement was up for renewal in 2017, it became clear that a liaison was needed to provide better support and management of the partnership.

Enter PSU's Institute of Sustainable Solutions, which for the last decade has facilitated effective partnerships between the university and community partners to take on complex sustainability challenges. The addition of ISS' Alison Hopcroft and Fletcher Beaudoin has helped reboot the partnership.

The core team — Hopcroft, Beaudoin, Crammond, USGS' Matthew Dale and Steve Sobieszczyk (both PSU alums), and PSU's Jason Podrabsky, interim vice president of research, Todd Rosenstiel, associate dean of research and graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Andrew Fountain, professor emeritus of geology — is focusing its efforts on three main areas: student and workforce development, classroom and academic engagement, and research and joint endeavors.

The work of the partnership includes: 

  • Cutting through red tape to help increase the number of diverse, qualified PSU students landing in internships, volunteer and job opportunities;
  • Helping build connections between PSU and ORWSC scientists and organizing them around common research interests;
  • Finding joint projects that both meet the needs of the USGS and provide educational and research opportunities for PSU faculty and students; and
  • Facilitating the sharing of equipment, resources, data and tools

Crammond says the most exciting development has been putting out a call for research projects that would combine the expertise of both PSU and USGS scientists and involve students. The partnership provided $60,000 in seed funding to support projects led by researchers from both PSU and ORWSC, with the goal that the results from these pilot studies would allow them to go after larger grants from other funding sources.

Man in roundtable discussion gesturing with his hands
PSU and USGS researchers have a discussion during a water science symposium.

Adam Booth, associate professor of geology, is teaming up with USGS' Hank Johnson and Steve Gingerich to study the interactions among surface water, groundwater and ground deformation of slow-moving landslides.

Kelly Gleason, assistant professor of environmental science and management, and Sylas Daughtry, a USGS hydrologic technician who is pursuing his master's of environmental management at PSU, will document fire effects in the Tanner, Herman and Eagle Creek watersheds impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire.

Elise Granek, professor of environmental science and management, and USGS research chemist Elena Nilsen will examine the extent to which pharmaceutical and microplastic concentrations co-occur in wastewater effluent and tissue samples of coastal oysters and clams.

"Both entities can extend their capabilities, they can extend their staff size, they can go deeper in one direction, they can attract bigger pots of money, they can tackle bigger projects than they could do independently," Crammond said. "It's really a natural marriage. So far, in the times we've been able to make it work, it's really worked."

Rosenstiel and Podrabsky say the partnership provides opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students to participate in real-world data collection and research science, and for some, can turn into permanent positions at USGS or another federal agency.

"It's really great to have the USGS scientists here on campus because they bring practical problems to the table that provide opportunities for both our faculty and students to apply their knowledge and expertise," Podrabsky said.