Four BYU engineering professors to run hydroinformatics initiative
This spring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a massive $360 million grant to fund a four-part initiative to conduct research on water resources nationwide. BYU has been tapped to lead one of the four pillars of this major effort over the next five years.
The goal is to improve the nation’s ability to forecast floods, droughts, and water quality. While the effort is nationwide, it will significantly benefit Utah policy makers, water managers and residents when it comes to water management, including the challenges associated with being the second driest state in the country.
BYU will lead the hydroinformatics research pillar, building on their experience of creating tools with dynamic visuals and dashboards to make water forecasting information accessible and more useful to a wider audience.
“Anyone can look at a weather forecast and decide whether or not to take an umbrella when they leave the house,” said Dan Ames, professor of civil engineering at BYU. “But the science for river modeling is pretty inaccessible. If we do our job right, people in water management and water industries will be able to see our water flow forecasts and make critical decisions. They’ll look at the probability of flood or drought and make a more informed decision with the same ease as deciding whether or not take an umbrella.”
Ames and fellow BYU professors Jim Nelson, Gus Williams and Norm Jones will work to improve the NOAA National Water Model with web-based decision support tools, maps, dashboards, and informational overlays to help people make better use of water flow predictions for every stream, river and major tributary in the United States. BYU is one of 14 academic institutions involved in the national effort, called CIROH (the Cooperative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology).
The four broad research initiatives supported by CIROH are:
- Water resources prediction capabilities
- Community water resources modeling
- Hydroinformatics (the BYU-led initiative)
- Application of social, economic and behavioral science to water resources prediction
Previously, this group of BYU researchers created water flow forecasting models now benefitting many nations outside of the United States. That BYU work is already being used by NASA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others worldwide. The main emphasis of BYU’s hydroinformatics research for CIROH is to bridge the gap between the water science and practice in the U.S.
“All of that data over a continental scale is available, but unless you are a scientist, you don’t know what to do with it,” Nelson said. “We need to be able to have lots of people using it. If we can open the data up for local water management efforts it provides a great benefit; that’s the value NOAA sees in having a national water model. Our focus is to create a consistent platform to access, visualize, and use water information in other tools to make informed decisions.”
While flood-related hazards are the initial focus of the national water model and the CIROH consortium, drought is the obvious water-related concern in Utah and many other arid western states. Addressing that issue starts with understanding past and present seasonal flows of Utah’s streams, rivers and tributaries.
There are thousands of Utah stream segments in the National Water Model, but only a few hundred of those have active flow gauges that provide measurements on a daily basis. BYU’s research will use those measurements to improve forecasts in the west, by providing better estimates of historic flow of these rivers and streams over the past 50 years in the areas without measurements. This will allow researchers to evaluate historical trends and provide forecasts of future conditions.
“We’re never going to be able to operate gauges in all of those rivers and streams, but our work will help overcome the lack of those gauges,” Ames said. “We’re basically rebuilding historic flow data for the whole state of Utah.”
Another important element in understanding and managing stressed water resources is an accurate assessment of available groundwater. Jones and Williams will lend their expertise enriching sparse well data measurements using satellite data, global models, and machine-learning to provide national groundwater information that will be critical to NOAA’s ongoing efforts to improve forecasting.
All of these efforts will provide water managers and the public with data to help them make better decisions on water management, flood control, agriculture, recreation and residential use: “People want to know, ‘Can I water my lawn or not?’” Nelson said. “We want people to have the data and then let them make the choice themselves.”
BYU’s ongoing portion of the grant will fund more than a dozen new students, providing support from scholarships to hourly wages to new research positions that will fuel additional research in hydroinformatics.
The University of Alabama is the lead institution for CIROH and both the University of Utah and Utah State University are consortium members and longtime collaborators with BYU in the area of hydroinformatics.