Forecasting Fragile Waters

Duck in algae water

Underlying John Harrison’s research is deep concern for the long-term health of the planet.

They are a familiar sight around new housing developments, business parks and parking lots: mini-wetlands, or tiny drainage courses, filled with sand and plants, that slope below ground level. Called bioswales, they are designed (and increasingly mandated by local building regulations) to remove pollutants from surface runoff, helping to keep rivers, streams and coastal areas clean.

Bioswales are a major aspect of “green stormwater infrastructure,” an area where the Portland/Vancouver region is a leader. It seems like a great idea. But, according to John Harrison, a water ecologist at WSU Vancouver, we still have a lot to learn. “The ecological benefits of these structures are not very well understood or quantified, especially in the context of a changing climate,” he said.

The science of green stormwater infrastructure is a primary research goal for WSU systemwide. Harrison, associate professor in the School of the Environment, is part of a recently approved, five-year initiative addressing WSU’s Sustainable Resources Grand Challenge, which supports research aimed at protecting supplies of food, energy and water for future generations.

The Green Stormwater Initiative will study the rising importance of stormwater, which carries toxic pollutants from urban and agricultural areas into streams and surface waters.

Harrison and graduate student Reed Norton are collaborating with Vancouver-based hydrologist Kevan Moffett and the Washington Stormwater Center at WSU Puyallup to look at the effects of climate change on green stormwater infrastructure. They want to know whether bioswales and similar elements can handle the larger, more frequent storms expected in coming years.

We see bioswales as an opportunity to gain a fundamental understanding of how ecosystems work,” Harrison said. They also provide a chance to help managers and planners understand the best way to use and place these features and better understand their effectiveness.

Research excellence

For the exemplary quality and quantity of his research, Harrison received the 2016 Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence. While his curiosity and research interests range widely, Harrison’s Global Change and Watershed Biogeochemistry Lab currently has three focus areas:

  • The effect of humans on nutrient pollution of surface waters and the ecosystems they support
  • The effect of dams on nutrient transport and greenhouse gas emissions
  • The biogeochemistry of green stormwater infrastructure

The common thread is a quest to understand the global nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycles—where these nutrients come from, where they go and what are the causes and consequences of their movement and accumulation. The cycles of all three elements are speeding up, and that is a concern with big implications for water—and for people.

“Through activities associated with food and energy production, such as making fertilizer, burning fossil fuels and planting legume crops, humans have more than doubled the rate at which nitrogen is available on land,” Harrison said.

Harrison recently collaborated on a study with WSU Vancouver research associate Daniel Reed focusing on a first-of-its-kind model they have developed to predict where coastal “dead” zones—oxygen-depleted areas harmful to aquatic plants and animals—are likely to appear around the globe.

Another paper currently in review predicts that waters in the developing tropics will hold the world’s largest dead zone within 30 years if nothing is done to prevent it. But there is a solution, according to Harrison and Reed’s modeling. “If farmers continue to integrate the production of crops and animals—in other words if they feed their animals crops and then put manure from the animals back on the crops to fertilize them, it results in a net decrease in nutrient pollution,” Harrison said. “That’s a relatively simple and economically neutral decision we can make today that can have real impact on coastal water quality.”

Harrison is particularly interested in solution-oriented research. “A lot of the work we do has policy relevance,” Harrison said. “I tend to look for questions that are at the sweet spot between being on the cutting edge and also being policy relevant.”

Early inspiration

Harrison joined WSU Vancouver in 2006. It was his first faculty job, after a Ph.D. at Stanford and postdoctoral and research work at Rutgers and the University of California Davis.

He was attracted to WSU Vancouver in part because it is close to his native Portland, and the young university offered an opportunity for junior faculty to contribute to building something. In addition, he said, “The diversity of environments we have around here—the climate gradient ... and the diversity of aquatic systems—is interesting and useful. The chance to come back and teach and do research in the same area where I got inspired to understand the environment was pretty cool too.”

He has made the most of opportunities to collaborate with scientists at WSU in Vancouver and systemwide, as well as others around the world. Harrison is always eager to credit his collaborators, who include not only other scientists but also mathematicians, economists and engineers.

“I don’t think a lot of the large-scale, complicated work we do would be possible without collaboration across disciplines,” Harrison said. “And collaboration with people who think about the world a little differently is exciting and fun.”

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This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download or view the Fall 2016 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.

Related: Environmental Science