Colorado Water Center: Funding the future of water research at CSU

Photo of a CSU student working in a river with the Colorado Water Center logo

Water is part of our everyday lives and many take for granted it will always come out of our tap on command. The reality is that securing water for our growing population is threatened by climate change, scarcity, pollution and inefficient systems. Water conservation efforts today will have tangible impacts on our future.

CSU is home to the Colorado Water Center, one of 54 National Institutes for Water Resources, dedicated to connecting water expertise to decision-makers around the state and beyond. The Colorado Water Center is a unit within CSU’s Office of Engagement and Extension and serves the entire university. The Colorado Water Center supports novel ideas and water faculty and staff with seed funds through their CSU Competitive Grant Program.

The 2020-2021 awardees will conduct collaborative scholarship filling in the gaps needed to address urgent challenges. Selected proposals include two interdisciplinary teams that will focus their research on watershed health and water quality, and two Fellows who will increase capacity in water education in Southeast Colorado and expand research on floodplain integrity in Colorado and abroad.

Water Research Teams

Sara Rathburn

Sara Rathburn is an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences. She is leading an interdisciplinary team of faculty, students, and partners to build a long-term watershed research site at CSU Mountain Campus. Rathburn and researchers want to study the headwaters of the South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River and make that information available for wider use. Through this project, the team will coordinate data collection, storage, and analysis as well as develop teaching content for CSU and the Poudre School District.

“The award leverages an initial investment from Dean John Hayes in Warner College of Natural Resources to install surface water gages, groundwater wells along the South Fork Cache la Poudre River, two weather stations, and telemetry equipment,” Rathburn said. “The Colorado Water Center funding will allow us to launch a full year of coordinated data collection, interpretation, analysis and visualization to foster broad interdisciplinary research, collaborate with the City of Fort Collins, develop relevant teaching content for CSU and public school students enrolled in classes at the Mountain Campus, and promote the Mountain Campus as a long-term research site. We look forward to building synergy between the Mountain Campus and the Colorado Water Center to address pressing water issues through research and teaching.”

Colorado State University Geosciences professor Sara Rathburn sets up ground reference targets in preparation for an aerial survey of Pingree Park using drone imagery at CSU's Mountain Campus
Geosciences professor Sara Rathburn. Photo by Bill Cotton, CSU Photography.

Mike Wilkins

Assistant Professor Mike Wilkins in theDepartment of  Soil and Crop Sciences is partnering with faculty and the U.S. Forest Service to conduct field and laboratory research to better understand water quality changes in post-fire landscapes. Specifically, the team will investigate ecosystem impacts of burned landscapes in beaver-generated wetlands in Colorado and Wyoming.

Head shot of Mike Wilkins
Assistant Professor of Soil and Crop Sciences Mike Wilkins

Water Fellows

Blake Osborn

Blake Osborn, regional Extension water specialist, is exploring restoration of degraded stream systems through collaborations with myriad community members, including local water experts, Cañon City High School, private landowners, local municipal water providers, and non-governmental organizations.

“The number one goal for our project is to quantify the impacts of novel stream restoration techniques on groundwater/surface water relationships,” he said.  “Working with the local high school, and giving students intensive hands-on training in applied research, is just icing on the cake.”

The project seeks to educate and train students and water professionals in natural river processes and restoration, improve hydrogeomorphic conditions in a two-mile stretch of Oak Creek in southeast Colorado, and provide data to inform state water managers about process-based restoration on stream system hydrology. Project impacts will be achieved by developing a new high school course that offers integrated STEM subjects and case studies.

Head shot of Blake Osborn
Blake Osborn, research scientist, CSU Extension and the Colorado Water Institute

Ryan Morrison

Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Ryan Morrison is joining forces internationally to understand human impacts on floodplain integrity. Leveraging previous research, Morrison will identify and compile global datasets and develop methodology to assess global floodplain integrity. Ultimately, his research aims to help water and land managers target efforts toward the most impaired floodplains.

Ryan Morrison preparing for a rafting trip
Ryan Morrison, assistant professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Colorado Water Center

The Colorado Water Center welcomes all disciplines to join the network and contribute to water research, education, and engagement at CSU. Learn more about these projects and the Center at