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Northwestern Postdoctoral Researcher Developing Sustainable Large River Management Tools for the World

Ginny Lee | November 20, 2019
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Colin Phillips is brimming with ideas to keep the largest rivers in the world healthy despite emerging threats including climate change, increasing use by people and industry, and their growing role as a source of sustainable energy through hydropower systems.

The postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a 2018 recipient of the NatureNet Fellowship from The Nature Conservancy is developing models that could serve as management tools for river networks around the world. The project has come a long way since Phillips wrote a proposal for the initiative with university mentors Aaron Packman, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research; and Daniel Horton, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and principal investigator in the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern. Phillips’ Nature Conservancy mentors are Carlos Rogéliz of the Northern Andes and Southern Central America office and Jonathan Higgins, based in Evanston, of TNC’s Global Freshwater Team. After a year spent developing models from available data on river networks within the United States, Phillips is preparing to test the new tools within the complex Magdalena River network in Columbia.

Building Next-Generation Conservation Models

Many current river conservation models account for broad information such as annual rainfall and river flow, according to Phillips, and they estimate ecosystem services that can be provided by rivers to drive investment in conservation strategies and portfolios. Yet, they do not account for phenomena such as flooding and sediment flow that provide significant benefits and often allow connected river networks to thrive. “The amount of water in any of the rivers or the amount of water that falls on average every year is not really meaningful for the landscape,” explained Phillips. “Landscapes are not static. They have pulses.” 

According to Phillips, the Magdalena River Basin in Columbia is the perfect place to first apply their models, particularly when it comes to the river’s inherent variability and complexity of water and sediment flow. There, the river is connected to surrounding wetlands known as cienegas, where floods bring water and nutrients to endemic aquatic and avian wildlife. The cienegas are not factored into current conservation models. “If you don't actually get the water level high enough to go over bank, you're not providing the nutrients in the water from the river to keep these wetlands in existence. There are a lot of communities that live along these that depend on them for fish and other resources,” said Phillips. It is also vital to understand sediment flow, as too much can result in increased turbidity, and too little can accelerate erosion.

His hope is that the revised models will be relatively simple for land managers to use and will inform decisions on issues such as how to fund river management and where to place hydropower stations to maximize their potential to generate energy while minimizing environmental degradation. Phillips’ work factors in Hydropower by Design, the Conservancy’s approach to the planning and management of hydropower developments that helps to minimize negative environmental and social impacts. He is working with river managers from the Conservancy to ensure that his tools meet their needs.

From the Cienegas

Last winter, while the wind chill in Illinois was reaching a frigid negative 40 degrees, Phillips flew over to Colombia where the sunny weather ranged from 70 to 90 degrees.

Upon arrival, Phillips and his colleagues traveled through small villages by boat, eventually ending up in the middle of one of the many wetlands beside the Magdalena River. There, Phillips said, it became easy to feel lost in the vastness of a cienega. On a map or satellite image, it is easy to see the Magdalena River as nothing more than a thin blue line. Yet, in person, from the middle of a cienega, the shore becomes a distant speck and the water levels rise and drop as one travels through the many channels, emphasizing the variability that makes such river systems so unique and valuable.

“It's hard to appreciate the kind of complexity until you see it on a human scale,” said Phillips.

While in the field, he was able to meet with local collaborators to exchange knowledge about the system and its management from both analytical and human-centric points of view.

Looking Ahead 

Now, back at Northwestern University in Evanston, with a year of the fellowship ahead, Phillips is eager to work with the Columbia data set and perfect that work to a point where the model can be used to create portfolios on different management strategies and decisions. He also hopes to apply this research to predict the impact of climate change on the flow of sediment and water throughout these landscapes. The researcher himself is particularly interested in how the rivers will evolve during relatively short societally relevant time frames such as 10 to 50 years.

So far, Phillips is optimistic with the progress of the project. Though taking on such an ambitious project with multiple variables appears to be difficult at times, he is invigorated by the research as it allows for “a lot of mental flexibility in what you’re working on and what problems you’re trying to solve, and that makes it, to me, really interesting.”