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Chippewa River research by UW-Eau Claire geographers and students garners national attention

| Julie Poquette

It doesn’t take a scientist to know that the Chippewa River plays a major role in many stories — past or present — about the city of Eau Claire.

It does, however, take several UW-Eau Claire geographers and their research team to tell the story of how the Chippewa River came to have its current characteristics, and how its valley became a suitable place to establish a city like Eau Claire.

“This is really a matter of telling the story of the history of the river over the last 25-or-so-thousand years — how the Chippewa River and its valley’s physical landscape have evolved," Dr. Doug Faulkner, a UW-Eau Claire professor of geography and anthropology, says of a 10-year study conducted by the research team. "It’s taking bits of evidence, like all historians do, really, and creating a narrative that puts all of the evidence into a sensible form."

The team’s long-term study of the Chippewa River now is gaining national attention and is being celebrated as a new model that can be applied to the study of river systems around the world.

Researchers include Faulkner and Drs. Harry Jol and Garry Running, also UW-Eau Claire professors of geography and anthropology, along with several colleagues from other institutions and, over time, as many as 100 UW-Eau Claire undergraduate students.

The findings of their study were published in 2016 in the journal Geomorphology, in an article titled “Autogenic incision and terrace formation resulting from abrupt late-glacial base-level fall, Lower Chippewa River, Wisconsin, USA.”

National attention for a public regional university

Drs. Garry Running, Doug Faulkner and Harry Jol

UW-Eau Claire colleagues Drs. Garry Running, Doug Faulkner and Harry Jol, all professors of geography and anthropology, were among the co-authors of a study of the Chippewa River that recently received a national award. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

The story Faulkner and his co-authors tell, it turns out, is pretty important — so much so that in April the paper received the G.K. Gilbert Award for Excellence in Geomorphological Research, a national award from the Geomorphology Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers.

The award is the specialty group’s highest honor in recognition of a single significant publication in geomorphology during the past three years.

It’s an honor not typically, or maybe even ever, given to researchers from a public regional university like UW-Eau Claire.

“I’ve sat at GSG meetings over the years and seen big names from research institutions go up and get the Gilbert award — people I’ve always looked up to and who’ve been my inspiration and role models,” says Faulkner, who served as the lead author of the study. “But they’re at R1s [doctoral universities considered to have the highest research activity according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education], and my career is not an R1 career. Mine has been one of working with undergraduate students.

“I love the research I do. I think it’s interesting and I think it’s meaningful, but I never expected it to have an impact on a larger audience, largely because of where I am and also because of the rate at which we produce research.”

However, it’s precisely because of the way research is done at UW-Eau Claire that this award-winning study was even possible, say those involved in the project.

“We have to play the long game, work on bits and pieces of the larger picture, to get to the end,” says Running. “But in our approach, because we're not under the publish-or-perish pressure that our R1 colleagues are, we have the luxury of addressing some more challenging questions, like the ones we did in this study.

“This research earned the recognition it did because it is going to change how fluvial geomorphologists look at river evolution over time all over the glaciated world. Our work is one of very few like it in terms of the scale of inquiry.”

Discovering the story of the Chippewa

Over the 10 years of work on the project, the story of the Chippewa River slowly came to light as data sets were gathered and examined and sediment samples were methodically collected and analyzed, Faulkner says, adding that determining the age of the sediments from different areas of the river was a key factor in piecing together the narrative.

The second author on the published research, Dr. Phil Larson, has a unique perspective on the project, having participated in the study as a UW-Eau Claire undergraduate, as a graduate student, and finally as a faculty member at another university. Larson is a 2008 UW-Eau Claire geography graduate who went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in geography from Arizona State University before joining the geography faculty at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he is now an associate professor and director of earth science programs.

Larson gives a succinct summary of the Chippewa River story that emerged as the data came together.

“It’s the story of how the rivers and the landscapes through which they flow are evolving following climatic change that led to the retreat of continental glacial ice from the region,” Larson says.  “As ice retreated, meltwater from the glaciers carved out large river valleys like the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys. Tributary rivers flowing to these newly carved valleys cut deeply into their landscapes in response. The Chippewa River was one of these tributary rivers, and it has been cutting into its landscape for thousands of years.”

The results of the study explain why the Chippewa River has the characteristics it has today, Faulkner says. For example, in Eau Claire, the city is built right up to the banks of the river and there is not great risk of serious flooding, unlike areas along rivers that overflow their floodplains once every one to three years.

“The reason is that the Chippewa has a deep channel due to the ongoing process of stream downcutting,” Faulkner says. “This suggests that Eau Claire is a great place for a city because of this history of incision of the Chippewa River that started 13,500 years ago, initiated by the Mississippi. It’s affected the valley, and it’s still affecting what the river is like today.”

The importance of student contributions

Over the 10-year span of the Chippewa River project, 40 to 50 students who participated were paid researchers through funding from the university’s Blugold Commitment differential tuition program. Others contributed by completing class assignments that, while giving students real-life experiences in the field, also informed the project findings.

When it came to his class assignments, “I would have a question and lay it out and have the students do analysis — of map data, for example,” Faulkner says. “There was no right or wrong answer. Sometimes the data would support a hypothesis and sometimes they didn’t. But they all shed some light, so students working on these various aspects were part of the project in a meaningful way.”

When Faulkner accepted the Gilbert Award, he had a specific point he wished to get across to his peers from universities across the U.S. and abroad.

“I wanted to impress upon a room filled with folks from mostly R1 schools the role that undergrads played and how evidence from undergraduate researchers can lead to significant findings,” Faulkner says. “Which says a lot about this place and about what we do. The research here is not just an academic exercise.”

For some students, participating in the project had lasting impact.

Larson says his work on the Chippewa River project was a determining factor in his choice of a career path, calling it “the single driving force for convincing me that I truly loved research and wanted to become a researcher, scientist and academic. It is what inspired me to believe in myself and to inquire and pursue answering questions about the natural world in which we live.”

Another UW-Eau Claire alum, Hannah Adams, worked on the project as an undergraduate before earning her geography degree in 2016. This spring she earned her master’s degree in geospatial sciences from Missouri State University and soon will start an internship at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. She looks forward to gaining work experience in stream restoration or water resources.

“I cannot stress enough how much undergraduate research helped me to be on the path I am on today,” Adams says. “The graduate research experience is already stressful and tough. Having research experience allowed me to transition into my thesis research smoothly.”

Running agrees that while student researchers like Larson and Adams had valuable learning opportunities working on the river project, they also made important contributions to the outcome.

“Yes, they got some field experience and a professional publication and presentation or two out of the deal,” Running says. “They learned how to do field research as part of a team, take notes, describe what they see, design approaches to solve a problem or answer a question, and build skills with field equipment ranging from shovels to Geoprobe units, total stations to pulseEkko GPR systems. And, it turns out, they also got to contribute to research that is actually pretty cool.”

Top photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students Taylor Limberg (front) and Katie Grong observe the Chippewa River bank with Dr. Doug Faulkner, UW-Eau Claire professor of geography and anthropology. Limberg and Grong will work on river research with Faulkner this summer, focusing on Chippewa River tributaries in follow-up to a previous 10-year, award-winning study of the Chippewa by Faulkner, colleagues and students. Photo by Shane Opatz.