The Popo Agie (bonus points for pronouncing this one right!) – Carli Kierstad

Hello all, I am writing to you from Lander – a small town in Central Wyoming that has already won me over. Since my arrival two weeks ago, I have been interning with The Nature Conservancy as a Summer Research Fellow. My summer research will be focused on the feasibility of a decision support tool (scenario analysis model) that could help TNC, conservation planners, land managers and others alike, understand the tradeoffs of irrigation practices, instream flow, and wetland ecosystem health in the Popo Agie watershed. It may not be initially intuitive, but increasing water conservation through increased irrigation efficiency can actually be detrimental to the local wetland ecosystems. This is because a significant number of these existing inland wetlands are novel and “unnatural” – created by and dependent upon irrigation inefficiencies (ditch leakage, runoff, etc). Thereby, increasing irrigation efficiency will decrease the water supply to these wetlands and potentially cease their existence in the arid region. It is easy to gather why it would be useful to have a model/tool to help with these tough land and water management decisions!

To start, I will say that the watershed is not incredibly large but the complexities of the issues are endless. If we were, for a moment, to ignore the deep cultural and social values tied to this river and watershed, it is still challenging to fully grasp the incredibly dynamic and complex interplay between agriculture, river hydrology, and wetland ecosystem health. In the end, it is my responsibility to scope the feasibility of a Popo Agie watershed specific decision tool, figure out what it would look like, and identify what we would need to create it. The watershed and system are fascinating, to say the least, and I’m just overall excited by the challenge!

My internship started off with a bang as I was put in charge of organizing and preparing TNC for an impending Popo Agie DSS workshop the following week. It was a whirlwind, but I pulled it off. The workshop hosted scientists and experts from all over the intermountain west that kindly came together to help frame the issue. In other words, it was a crash course for me and I am so grateful for it! I can now move forward through my research with a much deeper understanding of the issues and an accessible working group of experts whom I’ve met and started to build relationships with. I am now just beginning to organize my ~20 pages of handwritten notes from the two-day workshop.

It would be such an injustice to the town of Lander and its collection of lovely people if I didn’t also mention a few of the fun things I’ve been able to do outside of the office…
So far, I’ve hiked Sinks Canyon and Red Ranch Canyon multiple times, toured the physical watershed twice, listened to a lot of live music at Lander Bar, gazed at beautiful sunsets over the Winds, and spent quite a bit of time on a local goat farm cuddling the kids and learning how to milk the mommas! It’s only been two weeks, but it’s been a blast.