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Rivers Run Through Him


Recipient of the National Park Service's prestigious Director's Award,


USU's Jack Schmidt is the source from which preparation flows for the


next generation of river managers

“This morning we are ready to enter the mysterious canyon, and start with some anxiety. The old mountaineers tell us that it cannot be run; the Indians say ‘Water heap catch ‘em’; but all are eager for the trial, and off we go.”
—John Wesley Powell

ON AN EXCURSION ACROSS THE COLORADO PLATEAU, Australian Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, called the American Southwest “the place where souls are born” and gave the name to a 1992 book he wrote of the experience.


It seems an apt title for a region, with its unique beauty, revealing vestiges of ancient communities and beguiling rivers, that rarely leaves its visitors unmoved. Famed 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell waxed poetic on his experience of traveling through the Colorado River watershed. As his party prepared to traverse the Green River's whitewater through the Canyon of Lodore, Powell wrote:


“This morning we are ready to enter the mysterious canyon, and start with some anxiety. The old mountaineers tell us that it cannot be run; the Indians say, ‘Water heap catch ‘em’; but all are eager for the trial, and off we go.”


It's those very words Utah State University river scientist Jack Schmidt reads to his students as they travel the same waters.


Schmidt alum Randy Goetz '08 MS recalls listening to that passage around a late night campfire after, earlier in the day, negotiating the very rapids Powell described.


Heartbeat of the Planet

Viewed from above, the Earth is a patchwork of winding rivers and streams, an ebbing and flowing network bringing lifeblood to land and carving geographic wonders through forests, plains, rocks and desert.


“Rivers have existed on this planet as long as there has been rain on continents,” says Schmidt, a professor in USU's Department of Watershed Sciences, director of the university's interdisciplinary Water@USU initiative and director of the USU–led Intermountain Center for River Rehabilitation and Restoration. “A river that we experience today is fundamentally a pulse of water.”


Schmidt is arguably one of the foremost scientific authorities on the Colorado River Basin and other major river systems of the American West. He's also a leading advocate for river conservation.


“Jack is a big picture thinker and tries to help his students conceptualize river systems physically, biologically, historically and socially,” he says. “For me, that moment at the campfire closed the gap on 150 years of exploration on rivers in the West and gave me a starting point on the road that led from those early explorations to the time of hydropower dams and today's legal battles.”
—Randy Goetz '08 MS

“Jack is a big picture thinker and tries to help his students conceptualize river systems physically, biologically, historically and socially,” he says. “For me, that moment at the campfire closed the gap on 150 years of exploration on rivers in the West and gave me a starting point on the road that led from those early explorations to the time of hydropower dams and today's legal battles.”


“The Colorado River system carries this enormous pulse of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains across this great, vast desert of bed rock canyons we call the Colorado Plateau to the Sea of Cortez,” he says. “That is, by nature, what it does. What has happened is that human society has built dams that have fundamentally changed the system.”


Nearly 30 million people in the southwestern United States depend on the life–sustaining and electricity–producing waters of the Colorado, which flows through some of North America's most iconic landmarks, including Grand Canyon National Park. The river and its western counterparts are caught in a precarious tug–of–war between competing, unrelenting interests.


It's up to us, Schmidt says, to decide what kind of rivers these waterways will ultimately become.


“We want it all but we can't have it all,” he says.


A Revered Scientist, Collaborator and Teacher

In the tight academic and professional circles of fluvial geomorphology — the study of the origin, characteristics and evolution of rivers — Schmidt's name garners solid respect.


“Every fluvial geomorphologist I meet, along with other people involved in river management, have high praise for Jack's work,” says Goetz, who is employed with Inter–Fluve, an Oregon–based environmental engineering firm. “I think this comes from the quality of his scientific work and his unwavering dedication to the preservation of western river systems.”


Schmidt is a 2010 recipient of the National Park Service's Director's Award, the agency's highest honor. For more than 20 years, the New Jersey native has studied the large rivers of the NPS's Intermountain Region that cross national parks in New Mexico and Texas and in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.


“Throughout his long body of work in Intermountain Region parks, Schmidt has demonstrated outstanding collaboration, interaction and dialogue with educational institutions, agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service and the Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network,” says Michael D. Snyder, regional director of the NPS Intermountain Region, who presented Schmidt with a regional award in January 2010 and nominated the USU researcher for the national honor.


Schmidt seems humbled, even a bit embarrassed, by the accolades and is quick to credit his students for their role in his recognition.


“The award is really a testament to the hard work of my current and former students,” he insists. “It's recognition of their thesis research and efforts to move that research forward to publication, their contributions to professional meetings and work in cooperation with NPS staff to make that research relevant to ongoing management decisions.”


While Schmidt's expertise is repeatedly sought by federal and state water agencies, a good portion of his time and energy is reserved for students. He also devotes significant time to his growingly popular Stream Restoration Courses, which draw academics and professional water managers from throughout the nation and beyond.


Rebecca Manners, one of Schmidt's current doctoral students, calls her mentor an exceptional field scientist who is determined to instill excellence in his students.


“Jack has an incredible ability to both detect the fine–scale patterns of flow and sediment deposition and identify the larger–scale patterns of landscape change,” Manners says. “And he's dedicated to passing along these skills to his students.”


Field visits, she says, are where Schmidt's teaching shines and, when he can, the professor drops everything to join his students at their field sites.


“Numerous times, I've sat in Jack's office as he checks and rechecks his calendar to see if he can join me in the field,” says Manners, who received a prestigious 2010 National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to pursue research in the Colorado River Basin. “With his demanding schedule it's not often feasible, but the opportunities I have to walk around the floodplain or along gravel bars with Jack and talk about our observations are what it's all about.”


Though his students talk about their good fortune in becoming “Schmidt students,” studying under the formidable professor's tutelage, they say, isn't always easy.


“Jack expects only the highest level of effort and production from all of his students,” Goetz says. “Complacency, narrow–mindedness and laziness are characteristics he won't tolerate.”


Studying Troubled Waters

In addition to his work in the Colorado River Basin, Schmidt has developed and guided studies and management plans for the Upper Snake River in Grand Teton National Park and Utah's Provo River.


Doctoral student Susannah Erwin, who is mentored by Schmidt, has worked on both of these projects, which involve assessment of manmade impacts and recommendations for restoration. For her work on the Snake, Erwin received the NPS Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit's inaugural Student Award in 2007. For her work on the Provo, Erwin was honored with the first–place research poster award at the 2010 Federal Interagency Sedimentation Conference.


Schmidt is also involved in federally funded research on the Rio Grande (or Río Bravo del Norte, as it is known in Mexico) in Big Bend National Park along the U.S. and Mexico border. He serves as a science advisor in efforts between the two countries to bolster preservation of Big Bend and Mexico's bordering areas of Maderas del Carmen, Cañon de Santa Elena and Ocampo.


“Big Bend is a hauntingly beautiful place,” Schmidt says. “But the condition of the Rio Grande is an almost hopeless and intractable situation.”


Once a wide, sandy river, vast stretches of the waterway now resemble an irrigation ditch and are choked with invasive vegetation, he says. Not much water makes it beyond the thirsty, bordering cities of Juárez and El Paso and their northern neighbor, Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Big Bend, where the river cuts through the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande is entirely dependent on water flowing from the Río Conchos, its Mexican tributary.


The river's transformation makes it vulnerable to menacing floods, such as those this past July, when rains from Hurricane Alex unleashed torrents of water causing deaths and destruction of property.


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