OSU’s Jeff McDonnell, the current director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds has been up to some great research lately in collaboration with other researchers in watershed hydrology (how water moves through watersheds). The results of one of his projects was recently featured in Science Daily: Water hits and sticks: Findings challenge a century of assumptions about soil hydrology. Jeff is quoted here discussing how important this finding is for water researchers:
“Water in mountains such as the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington basically exists in two separate worlds,” said Jeff McDonnell, an OSU distinguished professor and holder of the Richardson Chair in Watershed Science in the OSU College of Forestry. “We used to believe that when new precipitation entered the soil, it mixed well with other water and eventually moved to streams. We just found out that isn’t true.”
“This could have enormous implications for our understanding of watershed function,” he said. “It challenges about 100 years of conventional thinking.”
That 100 years of thinking basically says that water moves through the atmosphere, falls as rain or snow, and a significant portion is absorbed by the soil, plants and other organisms before it is divided between ground and surface water or returns to the atmosphere through the process of evapotranspiration. Jeff’s research points to the fact that some of that water just stays put–and replenishes the plants, not moving deeper into the soil where we assumed it fed streams or groundwater. This means the first rains of the year are less effective in replenishing water that we humans quite often assume is ours to tap.
Yes, this is a small detail but important when you think about how significant the water cycle is for people, fish and streams in the Pacific Northwest!