BYU tapped as major leader in $360 million national water resources effort | News, Sports, Jobs


Courtesy of Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Brigham Young University professors Jim Nelson, Norm Jones, Dan Ames and Gus Williams stand on the banks of the Provo River June 7, 2022. The four civil engineering professors are leading a major initiative to improve resource management in nationwide water.

This spring, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a massive $360 million grant to fund a four-part initiative to conduct nationwide water resources research. BYU has been asked to lead one of four pillars of this major effort over the next five years.

The aim is to improve the country’s ability to predict floods, droughts and water quality. Although the effort is nationwide, it will greatly benefit policymakers, water managers, and Utah residents with respect to water management, including the challenges associated with being the second driest state in the country.

BYU will lead the hydroinformatics research pillar, drawing on its experience building tools with dynamic visuals and dashboards to make water forecast information accessible and more useful to a wider audience .

“Anyone can check the 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 of river modeling is quite inaccessible. If we do our job well, people in water management and water industries will be able to see our water flow forecasts and make critical decisions. They will consider the likelihood of flooding or drought and make a more informed decision with the same ease as deciding whether or not to take an umbrella.

Ames and fellow BYU professors Jim Nelson, Gus Williams and Norm Jones will work to improve NOAA’s National Water Model with web-based decision support tools, maps, edge and information overlays to help people make better use of water flow forecasts 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 Operations Research in Hydrology).

The four major research initiatives supported by the CIROH are:

  • Water resources forecasting capabilities.
  • Modeling of community water resources.
  • Hydroinformatics (the initiative led by BYU).
  • Application of social, economic and behavioral sciences to the forecasting of water resources.

Previously, this group of BYU researchers created water flow prediction models that now benefit many countries outside of the United States. This BYU work is already being used by NASA, the US Army Corps of Engineers and others around the world. The primary goal of BYU’s hydroinformatics research for CIROH is to bridge the gap between water science and practice in the United States.

“All of this continental-scale data is available, but unless you’re a scientist, you don’t know what to do with it,” Nelson said. “We need to be able to have a lot of people using it. If we can open up the data for local water management efforts, that offers a big advantage; this is the value NOAA sees in having a national water model. Our goal is to create a cohesive platform for accessing, visualizing and using water information in other tools to make informed decisions. »

While flood risk is the primary focus of the National Water Model and the CIROH Consortium’s initial concerns, drought is the obvious water concern in Utah and many other arid states in Utah. West. Solving this problem begins with understanding the 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 have active flow gauges that provide daily measurements. BYU’s research will use these measurements to improve predictions in the West, providing better estimates of the historical flow of these rivers and streams over the past 50 years in areas without measurements. This will allow researchers to assess historical trends and provide predictions of future conditions.

“We may never be able to run gauges in all of these rivers and streams, but our work will help overcome the lack of these gauges,” Ames said. “We’re basically reconstructing historical flow data for the entire 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 in augmenting sparse well data measurements using satellite data, global models and machine learning to provide national groundwater insights that will be critical to NOAA’s ongoing efforts to improve forecasts.

All of these efforts will provide water managers and the public with data to help them make better decisions about 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 their own choice.”

BYU’s ongoing portion of the grant will fund more than a dozen new students, providing support ranging from scholarships to hourly wages to new research positions that will fuel additional research in hydroinformatics.

The University of Alabama is CIROH’s lead institution, and the University of Utah and Utah State University are consortium members and longtime BYU collaborators in the field of hydroinformatics.



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