Profiles in Tahoe research: Laurel Saito

Director of graduate hydrologic sciences program excited about water, ecology offerings at University

8/7/2013 - By: Deanna Hearn
Laurel Saito Laurel Saito

Talk to Laurel Saito about ecohydrology, an emerging science to study the interactions between water and ecosystems, and she can't contain her enthusiasm for the University of Nevada, Reno's undergraduate ecohydrology major, the only bachelor of science degree program of its kind in the country.

"The University is unique in offering undergraduate ecohydrology. We have students transferring in because they want to do something that matters. I think it's important students have the opportunity to get interested in water and ecology at the undergraduate level." said Saito, director of the graduate hydrologic sciences program and adviser for the ecohydrology program in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science.

Saito, an associate professor with an extensive background in water resources and interdisciplinary water modeling in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, does most of her research on water quality as opposed to water quantity. That work has taken her to many locales including the Tahoe Basin for a study after the Gondola fire in July 2002 near the Nevada-California border at Lake Tahoe's south shore and the Truckee River.

In a study commissioned by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), Saito and one of her students looked at the issues surrounding a possible contaminant spill in the river from either a train or vehicle accident along the I-80 corridor.

"TMWA wanted some guidelines for the treatment plant operators if a spill occurred," Saito said. "They needed a way to figure out how much time they had until a spill would reach the water intakes and how long they would need to remain offline until the spill passed. We were able to model that for them."

Saito's team collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a dye study in the river and measure at various locations the times it took the dye to travel downstream and how much it spread in the river as it dispersed. This also allowed the researchers to determine dispersion equations for the first time on the Truckee River, something that is included in the manuscript to be published in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

Because Truckee River flows are highly regulated, they ran different flow scenarios through the model with simulated spills and set up a tool with various options for TMWA operators. Based on a number of factors, including the time of the spill and where it occurred, the tool can estimate the concentration of the spill, how long the contaminant would be present in the water above a certain level, when the plant should be shut down and when it could be turned back on.

"We provided time estimates that were conservative, best estimate and a liberal estimate to help the operators plan for such an occurrence," Saito said. "If a spill occurs at Boca Bridge, for example, they will have some idea when to get their equipment out there and start monitoring."

In another Truckee River paper published last summer, "Understanding perceptions of successful cooperation on water quality issues: A comparison across six western U.S. interstate watersheds," Saito worked with a student who was interested in whether or not people involved with watershed issues in the West thought working collaboratively was helping them better manage various water quality issues.

"There have been a lot of studies on interstate water with regard to the management of water quantity but not water quality," Saito said. "We conducted 48 surveys in six interstate watersheds, including the Truckee River. Meetings received the highest score for people's perception of success. There were higher marks for grassroots efforts rather than those who were required to work together because of river compacts or federal mandates.

"This relates to the Truckee River because the study found a wide range of cooperative activities in the Truckee River Basin, and people seem to be willing to work together and may be inspired by successes elsewhere. It is possible successful cooperation might spread to others."

(Editor's note: Learn more about the University's ongoing research at Lake Tahoe: 2013 Lake Tahoe Summit Report)


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