Decisions Downstream: New Art-Science Exhibit Offers Insights into Watershed Connections

Utah State University scientist and associate professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences, Sarah Null, wants people to dive into watershed sciences a little deeper–by using art. The choices one makes about local watersheds, she says, have big impacts on river habitats, and by extension on one’s life too. But the science behind water management can sometimes be a bit hard to digest.

To find a way to help people understand how their choices affect both habitats and humans, Null recruited artists Chris Peterson and Carsten Meier to create large-format images, paintings and interactive exhibits based on her research. A new exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, in Salt Lake City, called Decisions Downstream, is the boundary-crossing result of those efforts.

Using layers of scientific data, the artists created large-scale imagery of aquatic habitat and paintings that capture the transcendent experience of encountering wild fish. Video projections onto 3D maps also tell stories of past and future water development choices for the connectedness of aquatic habitat. Null connects these experiences with new water management models that have the potential to help preserve river habitats and maintain water supply for people.

Critical water decisions are being made right now in Utah, she said. The Decisions Downstream exhibit highlights the tools, trade-offs and alternative that can guide those choices.

“When I look at rivers, I see mosaics of habitats–warm streambanks, deep pools and fast-moving runs,” said Null. “I also see water that could be delivered to cities and farms or used to generate hydropower. The decisions we make to manage our rivers are complex, with tradeoffs between developing water and maintaining the ecosystems that sustain us. My goal is to bring these tradeoffs to the forefront so we can ask ourselves, as a society, what balance we value.”

The exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah opens January 15 and runs through July 31.

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