The Water Resources Center,
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Building and maintaining connections between individual people and organizations is crucial to all varieties of work, a truth underlined by recent global challenges. The Water Resources Center (WRC) at the University of Minnesota (UMN) promotes relationships across many scales of activity and between a diverse range of individuals and groups. Connection and solution-seeking research are values seen throughout the WRC’s outputs.
A unit within the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences and University of Minnesota Extension, the UMN WRC is made up of a healthy balance of both interdisciplinary researchers and extension specialists, a partnership that is sometimes uneasy in the world of academia. However, this staff of 26 individuals come together in an effective synergy. Dr. Jeff Peterson, Director of the WRC, describes “integrating research and extension” as among the center’s most successful accomplishments. He gives much credit to UMN WRC Associate Director Joel Larson, who manages outreach and engagement programs, including the Water Resources Extension team and Onsite Sewage Treatment Program, and serves as university representative on a number of boards and advisory committees outside of academia. Additionally, “more extension hires have come in recently with new ideas and energy, and there are new faculty on board, too. There is a purposeful energy in bringing these often separated units together to be one effective unit, bringing research directly into practice,” Dr. Peterson continues.
The WRC is partially funded through the Water Resources Research Act, and procures additional funding for research through its focus on innovative problem-solving. One current research project has an interdisciplinary team developing winter and cover crops that can reduce nutrient run-off to water ways while also providing financial benefit to farmers. The seeds of the Camelina plant, a likely possibility, could provide a profitable source of bio-fuel and cooking oil if winter hardy, food grade varieties can be bred. This focus on solution driven research, combined with a commitment to practical applications makes for successful grant proposals. In 2019, the WRC obtained over $1.5 million in new grants, securing $42 in funding for every dollar it received through federal base funds.
The UMN WRC maintains numerous channels for maintaining a regular flow of information to interested stakeholders and partners. For example, the Confluence newsletter updates the campus weekly on funding, professional development opportunities, and more. The quarterly Minnegram explores water-related concerns for a broad audience of subscribers. In 2019 alone, the WRC sponsored a total of 114 educational and conference events. The recent January 2020 Water Resources Assembly & Research Symposium gathered several interdisciplinary UMN research groups together to share intersecting interests related to invasive species in aquatic and land ecosystems. The general community is not neglected, with plenty of accessible, multi-modal learning materials available through the WRC website. Workshops such as the Aqua Chautauqua, jointly hosted by the WRC, UMN water extension specialists, and community organizations, seek to engage participants through all five senses:
Aqua Chautauquas are Extension programs that meld the art, history, culture, and science of water to raise the level of knowledge and depth of conversations about our water resources. Each program has 20+ learning stations, each with a hands-on component to engage participants. Examples include touchscreen watershed maps that visitors can explore, the Water Bar at which guests can sample a flight of drinking water from three different sources, a station on aquatic invasive species to see the distribution of various invaders, a model stream with running water that visitors can manipulate to experiment with the shape of the river channel, and a demonstration by the Sheriff’s Dive Rescue Team (On the water; near the water. Placed-based Extension water education programs, by John Bilotta and Karen Terry).
Professional development opportunities are plentiful through the WRC, offering an impressive breadth and depth of education opportunities for both water resource professionals and interested citizens. The center cooperates with partners outside of academia to provide innovative, research-informed modes of delivery, and promotes a sense of community among trainees. For example, individuals completing the 14 week Watershed Specialist Training are invited to continue discussions and cooperative plans through the Watershed Specialist Network page (https://wst.umn.edu/network). Additional WRC training programs include the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program and the Stormwater Practices Workshop. The WRC Water Resources Extension page is another rich resource for exploration, underlying the cooperation among departments the UMN WRC manages so well (https://extension.umn.edu/natural-resources#water).
The work of the WRC, to connect researchers to extension to stakeholders and beyond, depends upon building trust among all those within its sphere of interaction. “This idea of maintaining trust was an outcome of our strategic planning process…Those working in transfer of knowledge have noted a general dissolution of trust in institutions of all kinds,” Peterson explains. “State universities tend to retain more trust from their surrounding communities than many. So our goal is to keep and nurture that trust. How is much more difficult. We strive to not shy away from controversy – to inform without taking a side in the issue, staying true to the science.” The center actively seeks to include the perspectives of under-represented voices in their research and extension work, a significant key to building trust. Minnesota is home to several Native American tribal lands, and large communities of Hmong (from Laos), Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants seeking asylum after the Vietnam War. The largest Somali community in the U.S. resides in the Twin City area, as well. The input of these and many other unique minority perspectives must be brought to the table in water resources management and urban and community planning initiatives to create meaningful, solutions to problems that will be trusted by those they impact.
For the WRC staff, whose very foundation is the building and maintaining connections, the recent change in work style due to pandemic precautions is a challenge. Peterson explains how the group is coping. “Luckily, much of the work we do can be done online, but some of our staff have never worked from home. I’m fortunate to work with an inventive, resilient, innovative group of people…Everyone is finding new ways of connecting. There are virtual coffee hours, and an ‘online refuge’ for anyone to share useful, uplifting, interesting details for the staff community. Now that everyone is home, ways to keep the informal interaction part of work going are important.” Even under these unprecedented conditions, the coalescing of research and extension within the WRC’s structure ensures a robust output, connecting and informing the wide audience interested in protecting and enhancing water resources in local and larger regions. We, the UCOWR community, look forward to connecting with and exploring a diversity of water resources issues with this outstanding group at the 2020 UCOWR/NIWR Conference, rescheduled for October 2020!
Resources and Links:
University of Minnesota Water Resources Center website: https://www.wrc.umn.edu/
Aqua Chautauqua article: https://wcroc.cfans.umn.edu/wcroc-news/aqua-chautauqua-2018
2020 Water Resources Assembly and Symposium