Using Sediment Transport to build a watershed perspective – a Mountain to Sea Collaboration in the Nooksack River Basin, WA

Christina Bandaragoda, University of Washington
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This unit focuses on an interactive data driven approach to field and collaborative studies in sediment transport, using data from glaciated mountain peaks collected by the Nooksack Indian Tribe to the channel data collected by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Our approach is motivated by the following questions: What is a watershed perspective? What experiences do graduate students need to understand complex interconnected watershed scale processes? How will we prepare students to develop innovative solutions to water problems dependent on quantifying and predicting hydrology and sediment fluxes? The Pacific Northwest is a nexus of intensifying pressures on freshwater. Sediment transport in these highly erosive freshwater systems increases the uncertainty of flood impacts and fish habitat, with complex dynamic processes that are difficult to measure, observe, and attribute to upland sources. Climate and land-use (urbanization, agriculture) change are shifting the timing, frequency and magnitude of hydrological processes that move water, sediment, nutrients, contaminants and other constituents, significantly impacting terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and the critical services they provide. For example, these changes threaten to reduce mountain snowpack used for water supply while increasing stream temperatures, flooding and sediment delivery. This unit introduces students to the current state of understanding and coupled modeling of sediment transport in freshwater systems. For some faculty and graduate students, this unit may be their first visit to a local river system or interaction with government scientists, thereby providing a venue to explore collaborative opportunities for faculty and career building skills for students.

Intended Audience

Graduate students in hydrology, water resources, engineering and interdisciplinary earth sciences

Conceptual Learning Outcomes

  • Synthesis of experiential, computational, and data exploration into a team project.
  • Develop a watershed perspective; expand the appreciation for the connectivity and complexity of watershed transport systems between glaciers, snow, land surface hydrology, and river channel hydrodynamics.
  • Communicate with watershed stakeholders and scientists about available data, ongoing research needs, and research findings.
  • Use cyber-infrastructure and face-to-face interactions to build collaborative academic-government relationships.

Practical Learning Outcomes

  • Download time series data from CUAHSI HydroClient
  • Download model and resource data from CUAHSI HydroShare
  • Visit field sites that are the source of the hydrologic and sediment observations.
  • Time series analysis on streamflow, temperature and/or sediment data at multiple sites in one watershed.
  • Upload and share data on CUAHSI HydroShare
  • Write a report that summarizes analysis of data, field trip observations, and addresses locally relevant research questions.

Student Time Required

Preliminary online investigations: 4-6 hours Field trip: 10-12 hours Report and presentation development: 4-6 hours

Supporting Reference Documents and Files

Link to Sediment Theory and Concepts
Movie Trailer of Field Trip (Quicktime Video 111.3MB Jul29 16)


This unit is designed to be incorporated as a core component of the syllabus and supports a semester/quarter long group project development that applies classroom based theory with a hands on project.

Pre-course instructor preparation: One to two months in advance of the unit, the instructor should contact local scientists to coordinate available dates to host the field trip, assess the available observational datasets, and prepare the HydroShare Collection Resource that will be the online home for the collaborative projects.

Orientation: In the first phase of the unit, the instructor provides an introduction to the unit design and how the unit fits within the syllabus, the expected time commitments, and date of field trip. Watershed geography orientation is done using a Google map that is shared with the students by email or posted to course management system, and contains geolocators for sites where observations are available and the sites that will be visited on the field trip. HydroClient (time series cloud services) and HydroShare (hydrology data and model content cloud services) are introduced to the students, who are directed to HydroShare online resources for further help.

Team Preparation: the instructor should direct the formation of teams based on 4-5 research topics. Students should be encouraged to modify the research questions based on their areas of interest and preliminary assessments of available data that they download and explore with their team before the field trip. The team should identify data needs and field trip objectives that will help them complete their project.
Field trip: In the Nooksack River Basin, the Sediment Transport field trip is designed with the first stop at the highest elevation point of interest to introduce the students to upland mountain landscapes that are the source of sediment and have unique erosion characteristics. The final stop is at the lowest elevation where the river channel becomes an estuary and sediment transport processes depend on hydrodynamics and other tidal processes. Students visited various sites with unique sediment transport signatures including
1. alpine meadows surrounded by glaciers,
2. a river restoration project,
3. the Nooksack Indian Tribe reservation with presentations on their climate change and data collection programs by their Water Resources scientist,
4. a main channel sediment sampling site at an interstate bridge with a demonstration by USGS scientists.

5. the drainage outlet of the Nooksack River into Puget Sound/Salish Sea (local name)

Local scientists explained why they collected data, demonstrated how they collected data, and introduced the students to the types of instrumentation used to collect the data which had been downloaded in advance of the field trip. During the field trip, students and faculty collected videos and pictures using cell phones, which were compiled into a memorable video to enhance team building and reinforce the watershed perspective concept.

Collaborative Project: Teams worked with their data and selected research questions to explore the application of theoretical concepts learned in the classroom. The course culminated in student presentations, with reports uploaded to the course HydroShare collection.

Post-course evaluation: Share memorable movie. Get feedback from hosts. Get evaluations from students.

Steps within this lesson

1. Use Google maps, HydroShare, and HydroClient to give the student tools to orient themselves to the watershed geography and available data.

2. Mountain to Sea Field Trip

3. Team project presentation to classroom.

4. Upload results to HydroShare and share projects with local stakeholders.


Students were assessed on the final project presentation.