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Canal, dam and river: A day in the life of hydrologist Kendra Kaiser

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Advancing Lucky Peak’s Power Production Forecasting

What do onion farmers, a hydroelectric dam and a world-renowned whitewater kayaking championship have in common? Why, Kendra Kaiser, of course. Kaiser is a watershed hydrologist and kayaker, as well as an assistant research professor in Boise State’s Department of Geosciences.

While the study of water can focus on a single river, or component of the hydrologic cycle, a single day in Kaiser’s water shoes highlights how linked our water resources are.

Meeting the Irrigation Needs of Idaho Farmers

two people collect water samples from large irrigation canal
Kendra Kaiser meets with hydrology master’s student Reed Chasmar to collect water samples from canals, photo by Priscilla Grover

In her research, Kaiser is interested in water resources management and land use change. So on a hot, dry day in June, she set out to visit Riverside Irrigation District, and the Farmer’s Cooperative Ditch Company in Parma, Idaho with the goal to help Idaho farmers save money while ensuring their produce meets federal food safety standards.

“Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, irrigators have to test their water quality as close as possible to when they are about to harvest any produce that people will eat raw. One of the main consumer crops produced in the valley is onions, and Idaho is a major producer of onions,” said Kaiser.

two people look at tablet while standing next to irrigation canal
Kendra Kaiser and Reed Chasmar collect water samples from canals, photo by Priscilla Grover

To meet the act’s requirements, each farmer or irrigator must provide a baseline set of 20 irrigation water samples, at around $20 per sample. Then, all of these farmers need to bring their samples to the nearest certified testing lab in Boise. Over time, this process becomes very expensive for farmers, and in some cases might be redundant.

two people stand by canal, one dips bottle on the end of a long pole into the water
Kendra Kaiser and masters student Reed Chasmar collect water samples from canals, photo by Priscilla Grover

“Let’s say we have a canal, and along that canal there are multiple diversions pulling water out of it, and an individual diversion can serve maybe five or six farmers,” said Kaiser. “Currently, each of them have to separately sample their water quality, when in reality the water might not be that variable, according to work that’s been done by Stuart Reitz at Oregon State.”

The goal of Kaiser’s research is to find out the variability of water quality along the canal to see if farmers might be able to safely group their samples and save money. In this research, she is supported by a United States Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant of over $100,000 through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Advancing Lucky Peak’s power production forecasting

From Parma, Kaiser then hopped in her car with a destination of the Lucky Peak hydroelectric dam, an enormous example of the range of stakeholders she engages through her work.

Situated on the Boise River, this dam is fed by three reservoirs whose total capacity is 949,700-acre feet of water. The reservoirs are maintained and managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The powerhouse itself is owned by five irrigation districts and Seattle City Light operates and maintains the Lucky Peak facility for the irrigation districts.

two people inside hydro dam power plant
Kendra Kaiser with Tyson Dye at Lucky Peak Power Plant, photo by Priscilla Grover

Lucky Peak generation supervisor and Seattle City Light employee Tyson Dye is tasked with forecasting the amount of energy the dam will produce anywhere from six to 12 months in advance, a herculean task that requires data inputs from dozens of institutions, such as the National Weather Service, National Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and many others.

Historically, this process has been done by hand, with information being gleaned from sources and pulled into various spreadsheets. Dye said the process could take an entire day just to pull together the datasets, so he reached out to Boise State looking for someone who could help automate and streamline the process. In the process, he found Kaiser.

two people stand inside hydro dam power plant
Kendra Kaiser meets with Tyson Dye at Lucky Peak Power Plant, photo by Priscilla Grover

“For this phase of the project I’m automating data downloads, cleaning up that workflow and making it reproducible, and potentially helping them write a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation to help work on the streamflow forecasting component,” explained Kaiser. “ At the end of this project, I’ll compile the scripts and he’ll be able to press “Run”, and then a report will be produced in less than five minutes.”

“It’s been really neat to work with Kendra,” Dye said. “It’s cool that we basically have her in our backyard at Boise State. Working with Kendra helps us improve how we can provide electricity and power and, ideally, optimize how we’re utilizing the water for the whole valley.”

Competing for a spot in the North Fork Championship

woman in kayak
Kendra Kaiser, photo by John Webster

The veritable cherry-on-top after a day spent in water research, Kaiser then loaded up her kayak to practice for the qualifying race of the North Fork Championship.

This nine-year-old championship is held annually on the north fork of the Payette River in June, and according to North Fork Championship Organizer Alec Voorhees, this championship has also become the “whitewater family reunion” for some of the world’s best athletes.

“The whole point of the North Fork Championship is to bring the world’s best paddlers and race on Jacob’s Ladder, which is the hardest rapid on the North Fork,” Voorhees said. “This year we had 150 competitors in the qualifier race on S-turn. 29 of those competitors were women, which was really cool to see a huge jump in that division.”

Kaiser was one of those 29 women and came in sixth place in the qualifying race on S-turn.

“I’ve been racing for close to a decade now and I have never raced with that many women ever,” said Kaiser. “It’s a really amazing competition to see and watching five women race Jacob’s Ladder was phenomenal…it gives me chills just thinking about it.”

kayak championship underway in white water
The North Fork Championship, photo by John Webster

Both the S-turn qualifier and the final race on Jacob’s Ladder (fondly referred to as Jake’s) are about a quarter of a mile long the race on Jake’s includes navigating gates placed throughout the rapid, like in the slalom races seen in the Olympics. The incredible winning time for Jake’s this year for the men’s division was 1:52, and 3:25 for the women’s division. What is almost as incredible is that prior to the week of the race, Voorhees wasn’t sure there would be enough water to hold the championship.

“This year was really interesting because it was such a low water year that they didn’t start releasing water into the North Fork until that Monday before the race,” said Kaiser. “Normally we’d have water on the North Fork for a whole month prior, because usually they’re trying to release water out of the dam.”

Whether in her kayak or at a research site, Kaiser’s dedication to understanding water management decision-making and to advancing the field of hydrology is especially critical in a state like Idaho.

“Water in the west is the poster-child of how interconnected water systems, management, and recreation are. Irrigators need water to grow the crops we enjoy consuming, this water is often released down rivers that people enjoy recreating on and through power plant turbines for energy production. Streamflows through the Payette and Boise Rivers are collaboratively managed to ensure proper fish flows all the way down to the Columbia. Recognizing how water connects us to each other, and to these landscapes, is critical to managing our water resources for the benefit of all,” said Kaiser.

 Kayakers paddle in white water kayaking championship
The North Fork Championship, photo by John Webster