The surface of our shimmering blue planet is 70 percent water. Most of the water is in the ocean; some is locked up as ice or hangs in the air as vapor. A tiny portion of it is hidden underground or ripples through rivers and streams. The water we have now is all the water we’ve ever had or ever will have, all circulating in a closed system as old as time. Some people predict that water will replace oil as the most contested natural resource of the twenty-first century.
As the stories in this magazine attest, Oregon State University has a broad array of water-related research, from biological and physical sciences to engineering and policy analysis. And Oregon, as a natural laboratory, offers a rich variety of landscapes, from desert to rainforest to ocean. This capacity for research positions OSU to become an international leader in the study of water resources, according to Ed Ray, president of Oregon State University.
But there is more at OSU than its collection of great scientists and a rich natural laboratory. There is a spirit of collaboration that is rare among institutions. An idea of a collaborative center for studying all aspects of water began circulating among researchers, and soon the idea became one of the university’s strategic initiatives.
“Researchers at OSU are exceptionally good at collaboration,” said John Bolte, head of OSU’s Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering. He should know. Bolte and a handful of colleagues brought together about 80 faculty researchers across six OSU colleges and Extension to establish the Institute for Water and Watersheds in 2005.
Bolte oversaw the institute during its first year. “It’s become a point of focus for collaboration, a one-stop shop for research, teaching, and outreach,” he said. Others describe it as a “collaboratory” and envision a physical as well as intellectual center for water-related research and laboratory services.
Beyond the interdisciplinary faculty researchers, the institute has many groups in its orbit, including the new Water Resources Graduate Program and the Hydrophiles, a student chapter of the American Water Resources Association. There is even a new undergraduate program for water-related research within the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Bioresource Research program.
Michael Campana, an international expert on water management, joined the OSU faculty in 2006 as director of the institute.
“I have been affiliated with several universities and I have seen nothing like this kind of collaboration anywhere else,” Campana said. “It means that OSU water and natural resources faculty are unusually productive, they leverage their expertise by collaborating with experts in other places, and they don’t waste time with ‘turf’ issues. There is a ‘can-do’ attitude at OSU. I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb, ‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.’”
There’s nobody saying it cannot be done at the Institute for Water and Watersheds. OSU researchers are working with state and federal agencies and watershed councils across the state and collaborating with others around the world, helping communities repair and sustain their water resources.
“The people of Oregon are leading the nation with their community-based action at the watershed level,” Campana said. “And the researchers associated with the institute are among the top scientists in their fields in the world. Having them here, working together, gives Oregon access to the best minds for solving problems about water and watersheds.”