College of Science

Watershed Geology Lab

Research Areas

The Watershed Geology Lab addresses a spectrum of environmental issues involving watersheds, rivers, wetlands, coastlines, and near-shore marine environments of the continental shelf. Student projects usually involve environmental analysis of a specific landscape or monitoring and interpreting environmental change as a means of informing environmental decisions. We use field reconnaissance, and a variety of land survey gear, seafloor mapping data, geospatial datasets, and computer modeling in our research. Please contact Jimmy Guilinger if you are interested in the research areas described below.

A) River and Watershed Assessment and Restoration (Sample Publications)

Physical Landscape Response to Fire

The Santa Lucia Mountains, located near CSUMB, burned over 200,000 acres following lightning strikes in June of 2008. The Watershed Geology Lab is monitoring post-fire watershed effects. In particular, we are watching how streams, lagoons, and reservoirs are impacted by elevated runoff and potentially catastrophic debris flows and landslides. We have set up monitoring programs in the Arroyo Seco, Carmel, and Big Sur watersheds.

Potential Student Projects

  • Can we improve existing models on debris flow hazards to be applicable across a wider range of settings that exist in California beyond chaparral steeplands of Southern California?
  • Can we accurately predict changes in flood hazard as streams fill in with sediment?
  • How do streams change when debris flows are generated?
  • Can USGS models accurately predict debris-flow events?
  • How long will it take for aquatic habitat impacts to disappear?
  • Are there lasting post-fire impacts in coastal lagoons?
  • How much volume will be lost in local water-supply reservoirs as they fill up with sediment?
  • Do all stream types react the same to excess sediment inputs?
  • Is floodplain zoning adequate to prevent post-fire property losses along the central CA rivers?

Impacts of Sustainable Development?

The Santa Lucia Preserve is an expensive, low-density, housing development in the upper watershed of the Carmel River. The housing development is designed to be in balance with the natural resources of the area. It is nestled against the wildlands of the Los Padres National Forest. Deer, bobcats, turkeys, and wild pigs are commonly seen from your car, and are generally unconcerned by your presence. The development has a state-of-the-art water well system to provide water to the homeowners and golf course. During the permitting phase of the project, concerns were strongly voice about the impact that this development would have on baseflow in the streams that flow through the property on their way to the Carmel River below. Supported by the Santa Lucia Conservancy, the Watershed Geology Lab is monitoring the streams to determine if impacts exist.

Potential Student Projects

  • Are the monitoring requirements for the preserve too stringent or too relaxed? What new technology can we employ to improve monitoring results?
  • Can we accurately produce a water and sediment budget for the watersheds of the Santa Lucia Preserve?
  • Are endangered Steelhead impacted by water-use in the Preserve?
  • Is groundwater use measurably reducing summer baseflow in trout-bearing streams?
  • Is sediment yield from the Preserve impacting Steelhead habitat?
  • Is sediment discharge into Moore's Lake enough to fill it in?
  • Is home construction adding excess sediment to the streams?
  • Can photo monitoring detect changes in stream conditions through time?

Stream Restoration and Stream Restoration Policy

Streams and wetlands are commonly destroyed or impaired in the normal course of road construction and general urban development. Environmental regulations require the "mitigation" of those losses through improvements to wetlands or streams somewhere else. This process has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry of stream restoration. There are many unsolved issues regarding stream restoration and its industry. The Watershed Geology Lab is working to improve stream restoration practices and policies.

Potential Student Projects

  • Can a "watershed approach" be developed for the California stream mitigation program?
  • Are stream restoration projects reaching and sustaining their goals?
  • Why do failed projects fail? Can we publish the mistakes and learn the lessons?
  • Are the monitoring requirements for the stream restoration projects producing useful data?
  • Can requirements be improved through uniform standards of assessment?
  • Should there be uniform standards or certifications for stream restoration practitioners?
  • Should monitoring techniques be different for different kinds of stream restoration?
  • Should restoration seek to achieve "pre-European" conditions?
  • What are the appropriate reference reaches and standards for measuring restoration success?
  • Can competing goals of flood-control and floodplain wetlands be achieved in a single project?
  • How is sediment transport linked to project success?
  • Is "Natural Channel Design" the best option for restoration philosophy?
  • What are the uncertainties in natural channel design development, and how does that translate into uncertainty in physical blueprints of channel design?
  • Can "bankfull" geometry be reproducibly identified in the field? If not, what is a reasonable proxy?
  • Can "passive restoration" deliver higher quality results than "active restoration?"

Water Resources in the Monterey Bay Region

Water is the heart of every civilization. Expanding urban centers and climate change bring uncertainty to once-plentiful water supplies. Southern Monterey Bay does not rely on State water. The local groundwater systems are all we have to meet the needs of the local environment and human populations. Evidence strongly indicates that we are already living unsustainably. The Watershed Geology Lab is interested in tracking the policies and activities leading to sustainable water use in the region.

Potential Student Projects

  • What is the percolation rate of surface water recharging the local aquifers?
  • Will the Salinas rubber dam solve our saltwater intrusion issues?
  • Can we communicate the groundwater data to decision makers and voters through animations?
  • How long will the regional reservoirs last, given sedimentation rates?
  • Does fire play a role in water supply?
  • Does groundwater extraction along the Big Sur River impact surface flow?
  • Would regional rainfall capture from roofs add significantly to our water supply?

Watershed Assessments: Can We Detect and Correct Chronic Sediment Sources?

Excess sediment has been identified as a major water pollutant in many rivers around the world. This sediment comes from sources distributed around the watershed including construction sites, rural roads, culverts, urban areas, agriculture, unstable hill slopes, and unstable river channels. These chronic sediment sources can be repaired once they are identified through field reconnaissance and other assessment strategies. State and Federal restoration funds become available to non-profit watershed councils once assessments have been completed. The Watershed Geology Lab has performed assessments on several watersheds in the region.

Potential Student Projects

  • Can offroad vehicle parks be sustainably managed in terms of sediment yield?
  • Are the new EPA-sanctioned watershed assessment protocol "WARSSS" applicable in Mediterranean climates?
  • Can local streambank erosion rates be extrapolated to other parts of the watershed, or do have to measure everywhere?
  • Can Google Earth imagery provide inexpensive shortcuts for regional assessments?
  • How well do models of sediment yield predict real values of sediment yield?
  • Should anticipated climate change be used to assess future sediment and water yields from watersheds?
  • Does watershed runoff impact near shore marine conditions in central California?
  • How well does the Carmel Lagoon trap or transport sediment to the near-shore environment?

Gullies, Landslides, and Restoration on Former Fort Ord Lands

CSUMB was part of the re-use plan for former Fort Ord Army base. The re-use included 15, 000 acres of land to be managed for both public recreation and natural resource conservation. The geology beneath the BLM land is fragile. Old sand dunes and young river deposits are easily eroded once the land is disturbed. An inventory of significant erosion sites done by the Watershed Geology Lab mapped the worst sources of sediment and landscape disturbance. The map has been used to prioritize restoration efforts using native vegetation. Are the restoration efforts working? Are the erosion sites and landslides still active? The Lab has a long-term program of monitoring changes in this landscape.

Potential Student Projects

  • Have the BLM restoration efforts been successful in stopping erosion and re-introducing native vegetation to the landscape?
  • Do restored soils have the same rainfall infiltration rates as native undisturbed soils?
  • Are the really large gullies and landslides active every year, or just during years with extreme rainfall?
  • Are nearby towns and communities at risk from debris flows or flooding because of disturbed landscapes on BLM lands?
  • Which erosion sites should be prioritized for restoration?
  • What is the role and evolution of the magnificent subterranean soil pipes of BLM lands?

Large Woody Debris Dynamics in the Carmel River System

Large woody debris (LED) comprises logs, branches, rootwads, and wood accumulations. LWD forms the critical link between aquatic and terrestrial habitats through physical and biological bridges. LWD serves myriad roles in river habitats. It is a substrate for invertebrates and a protective cover for fish. LWD forces flow to scour deep pools, and can help stabilize stream banks. How much is enough? How much is too much? The Watershed Geology Lab has conducted inventories of LWD on the Carmel River to help resource managers understand the changes in abundance through time and space.

Potential Student Projects

  • Is the population constant?
  • Is new LWD replacing old LWD at a constant rate of recruitment?
  • How far does LWD move along the river? Is it stable in space?
  • Tag and recover LWD to capture dynamic changes.
  • GPS LWD occurrences and note their role in physical aspects of the river.
  • Is the abundance of LWD constant through time and space?
  • How much wood should be used in intentional LWD restoration sites?
  • Does LWD naturally occur in a specific angle to the bank?
  • Is LWD generally a stabilizing or destabilizing factor for stream banks?
  • How will dam decommissioning change the abundance and role of LWD along the Carmel River?

B) Coastal Science and Environmental Policy (Sample Publications)

Coastal Geomorphology and Coastal Erosion Hazards

The Monterey Bay Coastline is one of the nation's important resources. Its assets and values include rare undeveloped coastline habitat, recreation, aesthetic beauty, wide beaches, and tourism. It forms the rim of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Research now shows that the coastline of southern Monterey Bay is rapidly retreating through the process of coastal erosion. The overarching erosion policy is to build sporadic seawalls to temporarily protect coastal development. This approach is short-sighted, and has negative consequences for the region. The Watershed Geology Lab is studying coastal geomorphology and surface processes to improve general coastal management policies.

Potential Student Projects

  • What is a sustainable regional strategy for avoiding losses associated with coastal erosion?
  • Are seawalls the best answer to combat coastal retreat?
  • Can we avoid building more seawalls along our coastline?
  • Are surfing reefs a viable option for local coastline protection?
  • Is beach nourishment a reasonable approach to reducing coastal retreat rates in Monterey Bay?
  • Can seawalls be shaped differently to reduce negative impacts?
  • What is the link between coastal retreat and broad beaches?
  • What are the timing, rate, and geomorphic processes of mass transfer of sand from sea-cliff to the beach?
  • What is the residence time and fate of the beach sand sourced from coastal sea cliff erosion?
  • Can new estimates of sea level rise be incorporated in coastal retreat projections?