A finely meshed net plunges into a slow-moving eastern Oregon stream flowing into the Umatilla River. Oregon State University researchers kick up mud and trawl the cloudy plume that reveals caddisflies and leafy debris. Along the banks, grasses and willows grow beside fallen logs.
The trees, shrubs, and flowers are vital to the life of the waterway. They create the base of a food web, filter pollutants, shade and shelter fish, and prevent shallow streams from overheating.
Because of their importance, OSU researchers are studying how wildlife might react if this vegetation were depleted and how the changes might disturb the Columbia Basin’s ecological balance. Climate change, for example, may eventually turn reliable snows into rain, meaning less snowpack and potentially dry streams here by late summer, according to David Wooster, an ecologist at OSU’s Hermiston center who studies vegetation and insects along streams.
“If the banks of waterways don’t have moist soils, we’ll see less plant growth, which will negatively affect habitat for a lot of wildlife, including insects, fish, and birds,” he said.
Additionally, Wooster and Sandy DeBano, who is also an OSU ecologist in Hermiston, are investigating how land management around waterways and water uses could potentially help or hinder salmon, which spawn in the streams.
“Salmon need clean and flowing rivers and streams, but humans need that same water for a lot of other things, including irrigated agriculture,” Wooster said. “Our research wants to find out how we balance these choices, and hopefully we can inform responsible decisions down the line.