National Science Foundation EPSCoR awards Montana $20 million to advance research and education in water quality


The National Science Foundation has funded a new $20 million research and education project on water quality in Montana.

The project, titled the Consortium for Research on Environmental Water Systems, or CREWS, is a partnership between Montana State University, the University of Montana, Montana Technological University, Salish Kootenai College and Little Big Horn College to study Montana water systems and water quality issues.

The CREWS project will focus on three study sites: the upper Clark Fork River, the Judith River Watershed and the Powder River Basin. Research will explore how nutrients and contaminants affect water quality — from rivers and soils to the local communities that rely on clean water.

“The CREWS project targets solutions to water quality issues that balance Montana’s need for clean water with the natural resource uses that are so crucial to the state’s economy,” said Ragan Callaway, the project’s principal investigator. Callaway is a UM Regents Professor and project director for the Montana NSF EPSCoR Office.

Callaway said project researchers are working with government, business and nonprofit partners, as well as local citizens and landowners, to coordinate and carry out research and develop solutions to clean water issues.

The multi-institutional team will connect science to people across the state, Callaway said. Outreach and education programs as part of CREWS will increase science and technology fluency for rural K-12 learners and support Native American students in scientific and technological pursuits. The project creates opportunities for workforce development and innovation and promotes entrepreneurship.
At the upper Clark Fork River research site, the CREWS team will study river productivity and ecological integrity, as well as develop technical solutions that address contaminants. Social science researchers will study how water quality issues and solutions are influenced by the people who live and work along the upper Clark Fork River.

In the Judith River Basin, the project will conduct research on water chemistry and quality in order to understand the movements of nitrates and contaminants through soils, groundwater and streams. These efforts will lead to new technologies for removing contaminants from water systems.
And in the Powder River Basin, the CREWS research team will focus on understanding and mitigating the impacts of coal mining on ground and surface water quality. The goal of research in this region is to understand how sulfate compounds form and mobilize in coal-spoils aquifers.

Initial private industry and other partners include Sunburst Sensors; Resonon; Water and Environmental Technologies; the Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program; the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology; the Missoula Public Works Department; and the Clark Fork Coalition.

A team of 22 researchers from diverse science disciplines and institutions in Montana have come together to make this project possible. In addition to principal investigator Callaway, the project’s co-principal investigators are:

  • Stephanie Ewing, associate professor of land resources and environmental sciences at MSU.
  • Robert Walker, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at MSU.
  • Maury Valett, professor of biological sciences at UM.
  • Jerome Downey, professor of extractive metallurgy at Montana Tech

The CREWS project is funded through EPSCoR, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which is an NSF program that has made substantial investments in Montana’s research infrastructure since 1980.

“Over the next five years, this project will make significant investments in Montana’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, including programs for Native Americans and rural Montanans,” Callaway said.

The project is underway and will run through Sept. 30, 2023. For more information visit