Nation’s Growing Water Prediction Capabilities Highlighted by Senate Appropriators

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Publication date: 
7 April 2017

At the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee’s first hearing of the year, committee members and weather community leaders highlighted the importance of integrated water forecasting and raised concerns about the impact of the administration’s NOAA and NASA budget proposals.

On April 4, as the House was debating and passing the amended “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act”, members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science heard from a panel of witnesses from the weather research, forecasting, and user communities on the importance of collaboration in predicting and forecasting water-related hazards and events.

Explaining why he had convened the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) said in his opening statement that,

Severe flooding, extended droughts, and dangerous storm surges, among [other water-related hazards], threaten communities across our nation. … Improving our ability to predict and forecast these events will help save lives and protect property by allowing emergency managers to better prepare and respond to extreme weather incidents.

Shelby went on to highlight the National Water Center, headquartered in Tuscaloosa in Shelby’s home state, and the new National Water Model, which he praised as a “product of collaboration between federal agencies and universities.”  

While the main purpose of the hearing was to review activities and collaborations in water hazard forecasting and mitigation, the discussion was overshadowed by the administration’s proposed reduction of funds to  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) expressed concern in her opening statement about the impact that the cuts would mean for coastal communities across the nation, saying,

The administration has proposed significant cuts to NOAA’s research and data lines, and I hope that all of our witnesses will help us understand what impacts those cuts could have on our weather forecasts and our community’s capacity to prepare for and respond to weather and water hazards.

National Water Center and Model community collaborations praised

The NOAA National Water Center, which opened on the University of Alabama campus in 2015, serves as a clearinghouse for forecasting of all water-related phenomena facing the nation. The National Water Center works to mitigate three risks to communities across the nation, said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service (NWS):  “too much water, too little water, and poor-quality water.” Water hazards, he said, are “driven by weather events and seasonal variability that impact water availability and quality.”

Uccellini highlighted the center as “a catalyst for enhanced partnerships,” explaining that the advances in capabilities that come out of the center “leverage the full-range of NOAA’s water science and services, from improved seasonal predictions championed by [the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research] to improved coastal water predictions provided by the National Ocean Service.”  NOAA, along with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers, has also formed the Integrated Water Resources Sciences and Services (IWRSS) partnership, which leverages interagency expertise to enhance water forecasts.

Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, highlighted the NWS’s 2016 deployment of its new National Water Model as a major success story. Busalacchi credited the effort to the academia, public sector, and private sector“triumvirate” of the weather, water, and climate enterprise.

The model leverages NOAA’s full suite of weather models to produce water flow forecasts for 2.7 million U.S. rivers and streams and has increased the spatial density of NOAA’s water forecasts by 700 times. Busalacchi explained that the model began as a National Science Foundation-funded regional water research forecast model at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. NOAA, NASA, and USGS, in partnership with the private sector, tested and operationalized the NCAR model in Romania and Israel. Busalacchi, emphasizing the multi-sectoral contributions to the model, said,

…[T]he development and implementation of this model from research to operations could not have happened without sustained collaborative engagements between academia, industry and government.


National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

The National Water Center on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the National Water Model is housed.

(Image credit - NOAA National Water Center)

Public Domain

Witnesses recommend improvements to NOAA’s integrated programs

While Uccellini and Busalacchi praised NOAA’s established integrated programs including the National Water Center and Model, Mary Glackin, senior vice president for science and forecast operations at The Weather Company, said there is room for improvement in accelerating the transition of research into operations.

Glackin pointed to the fact that “improvements in the precipitation forecast are limited by inadequate observations,” specifically calling out slow data reporting from the NASA Global Precipitation Mission. “[T]he time and expense of satellite missions no longer allow us the luxury of having research missions and then follow-on operational missions. We should be selectively looking at research missions that have high potential return and taking steps to make them operational,” she added.

Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, testified that forecasts need to be “accurate, precise, up-to-date, [and] consider an ever-changing built environment” to help communicate the risks of water hazards to local communities. He continued,

[The maps] should be as granular as possible, such as the street level maps produced by the National Water Center. Too often, they are not actionable for the average citizen, and individuals and communities suffer the consequences. Without good information driving our land use choices, we will place our citizens and our assets in water’s way.

Appropriators build case in preparation for FY17 and FY18 budgets

Subcommittee members came armed with questions to bolster their justifications for fully funding satellite and observation programs during the ongoing fiscal year 2017 funding negotiations as well as the fiscal year 2018 appropriations cycle.

Democratic members asked the witnesses to illustrate the broad, long-term impacts of the administration’s proposed funding cuts to NOAA programs. Shaheen, for instance, inquired about how eliminating specific NOAA programs like Sea Grant, the Regional Coastal Resilience Program, the Coastal Zone Management Program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the Office of Education, would affect the weather community.

Busalacchi responded by observing the integrated nature of the weather enterprise, warning:

… if the funds are cut off from any one of these players up here, we can’t do the job together as an integrated community to deliver those services to the community.

 Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) focused on the long-term effects of the proposed elimination of four NASA Earth Science missions — PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR, and CLARREO Pathfinder — which provide data that can augment weather and water prediction.

Uccellini emphasized the importance of NOAA’s interagency partnerships, especially with NASA: “Today versus 17 years ago, … 30 to 40 percent of our satellite data that goes through our models [is] research data from organizations like NASA … And what it does is... provides improved information not only for the atmosphere, but for the entire earth system — the land, the ocean, and the cryosphere, the ice.”

Shelby, the sole majority committee member to speak, appeared most concerned about the fact that the National Water Center is not yet fully staffed. Citing obstacles such as the current federal hiring freeze, Uccellini responded that “working through issues to continue the hiring process within the water center… [is] especially important to [NWS] because we do need to build the capacity of the operational people.”

Shelby said the committee would lead efforts to ensure that the National Water Center is funded in fiscal year 2018, stating that it is a “good investment.”