Consortium for Research on Environmental Water Systems (CREWS)

Montana, USA

The Consortium for Research on Environmental Water Systems (CREWS) project is a five-year, $20M NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 partnership between the University of Montana, Montana State University, Montana Technological University, Salish Kootenai College, Little Bighorn College, and business and government partners to study Montana’s environmental water systems and specific water quality issues. CREWS’ science focus is on water quality impacts related to hard rock mining, intensive agriculture, and energy extraction. The project brings together faculty and students from molecular science and engineering, environmental and earth science, synoptic signal and sensors technology, and natural resource social sciences to address National Research Council-identified challenges to develop a better understanding of how contaminants affect water quality. Topics tackled by CREWS include relationships between ground and surface water quality and chemistry, restoration of damaged ecosystems, development of field-deployable sensors, and strategies that integrate social science into cooperative research. Research activities will focus on three representative Montana water systems: 1) hard rock mining in the Upper Clark Fork River; 2) agriculture in the Judith Basin, and 3) energy extraction in the Powder River Basin. Research activities include studying the origin, persistence and transformation of contaminants in water and their impact on ecological and social systems. CREWS will support building new research competitiveness and infrastructure for the Montana University System (MUS) and partners in ways that advance workforce development, commercialization of project science, STEM education, and inclusion.

Start date: October 1, 2018

Project Components:

Study Site 1 - Upper Clark Fork River: Water quality in the Upper Clark Fork River (UCFR) suffers from a century-old mining legacy. Heavy metals and N enrichment influence aquatic communities and processes. UCFR research will investigate how nutrients and metals act as subsidies and stressors in the context of river productivity, algal blooms, and ecological integrity along a contaminated river.

UCFR Team:

  • Lead: Valett (UM)
  • Berthelote (SKC)
  • Colman (UM)
  • Cross (MSU)
  • DeGrandpre (UM)
  • Downey (MTech)
  • Hall (UM)
  • Lichtenberg (SKC)
  • Metcalf (UM)
  • Payn (MSU)
  • Shaw (MSU)

Study Site 2 -- Judith River Watershed:

Due to exceptionally shallow unconfined aquifers and gravelly soils, agricultural activities in the Judith River Watershed (JRW) over the last century have gradually resulted in unusually high levels of NO3- and a cocktail of organic pesticides at low concentration in shallow ground water, challenging farming communities to find workable solutions that address both water quality and soil health concerns while also sustaining local livelihoods. JRW research seeks to understand how intensive agriculture interacts with natural hydrologic dynamics to control NO3- and applied organics in soil, aquifer, riparian, and stream systems.

JRW Team:

  • Lead: Ewing (MSU)
  • DeGrandpre (UM)
  • Grumstrup (MSU)
  • Haggerty (MSU)
  • Payn (MSU)
  • Shaw (MSU)
  • Skinner (Tech)
  • Walker (MSU)
  • Zodrow (MTech

Study Site 3 -- Powder River Basin: Open-air coal mining creates high salinity (sulfate, SO42-) in surface waters of the Powder River Basin (PRB) and poses threats to downstream agriculture, livestock and livelihoods. PRB research will investigate how actions associated with energy development alter groundwater-surface water exchange pathways and influences on hydrochemical and biological aspects of water quality.

PRB Team:

  • Lead: Walker (MSU)
  • Doyle (LBHC)
  • Ewing (MSU)
  • Eggers (MSU)
  • Haggerty (MSU)
  • Meredith (MTech)
  • Payn (MSU)
  • Zodrow (MTech)

Disciplinary Research Synthesis Areas:

  • Systems Ecology and Earth Sciences 
  • Molecular Engineering and Environmental Science 
  • Environmental Synoptics Signals and Sensors 
  • Natural Resource Social Sciences 

Broader Impacts and Engagement:CREWS project research is integrated with internal and external engagement, networking, and training programs, including but not limited to:

  • Small Town STEM: Outreach program for rural K-12 students, citizens, and teacher training
  • Montana STEM Exchange: Outreach network connecting educators and organizations across MT
  • Montana Girls STEM Collaborative: programming and network to advance girls in STEM
  • Native Research Network: training and networking opportunities for Native American researchers at tribal colleges
  • CREWS Professional Development Certificate Programs: trainings and educational modules for project participants and working professionals
  • Institutional Collaborations for Innovation and Commercialization (IC2): commercialization networking and training program
  • Montana Water Consortium: state-wide network promoting partnerships between the research team, government, NGO and private sectors

Broader Impacts Team: Taylor (MSU), Thomas (UM), Truitt (UM), Mohr (UM)