PI Spotlight: Dr. Clay Cooper

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NWRRI article by Nicole Damon

Dr. Clay Cooper first became interested in water resources research when he was studying geology for his bachelor’s degree at Northern Arizona University in the 1970s. “At that time, geology was largely a descriptive science, with little understanding of the coupling and feedbacks of the different chemical, physical, and biological processes of an observed phenomenon,” Cooper says. “For example, a geological engineer could estimate a rate of erosion from a hillslope, but that would have been largely intuitive or  based on crude measurements. Hydrology seemed more quantitative and because I enjoyed math and physics, that’s the field I decided to pursue in  graduate school.”  

The interaction of time scales of different hydrologic processes in arid environments is one of the aspects of water resources research that Cooper finds particularly interesting. “Water residency times vary greatly. In the atmosphere, it is on the order of a few weeks and in streams it is days to months,” Cooper explains. “In arid environments, the mean residence time of groundwater can be several tens of thousands of years compared with several thousand years in oceans, which contain over 95 percent of Earth’s water. So groundwater is a choke in the hydrologic cycle, but it is balanced out by the fluxes in and out of different reservoirs.” 

What Cooper finds most interesting about the research he is doing for the NIWR project “Theoretical Analysis of Optimal Groundwater Basin Development” is the qualitative study of differential equations. “I think this research is important and I will be interested to see what the peer response is so that I can improve on the methods I’m developing,” he says. “I’m learning a lot as I make progress on this project.” Another aspect of groundwater research that Cooper finds particularly fascinating is thermal and solute convection in porous media. “Our understanding of the processes controlling groundwater convection in fractured, heterogeneous geothermal reservoirs is largely known through analytical and numerical studies,” he says. “Very few laboratory experiments have been conducted and they have been mostly in uniform porous media.” 

When it comes to working in the lab or in the field, Cooper prefers lab work. “I have done quite a bit of field work in the past, but I like laboratory studies because they are largely underutilized in hydrology, especially in some of the areas in which I work,” he says. “I believe pretty strongly that advances are made through a combination of careful laboratory experiments, mathematical and numerical analysis, and field observations and measurements.”

“I like laboratory studies because they are largely underutilized in hydrology, especially in some of the areas in which I work. I believe pretty strongly that advances are made through a combination of careful laboratory experiments, mathematical and numerical analysis, and field observations and measurements.” – Clay Cooper

In his spare time, Cooper likes to read popular science books and research monographs and textbooks. “The book I’m currently reading is Flow in Porous Rocks by Andrew W. Woods,” he says. “I’m also reading Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I’m not a surfer, but it’s a great read.” Outside of his research interests, Cooper is also a jazz drummer and enjoys making chile relleno casserole, which is one of his favorite dishes to make. And for dessert, if he has a choice between cake or pie, there’s only one answer: “Warm strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream,” he says. “Every time.”

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