Flood Gives UI Researchers Rare Opportunity

Sunday, October 5, 2008

By Steve Gravelle
Cedar Rapids Gazette

As the Iowa River neared its crest last June and Larry Weber and his colleagues scrambled to remove computers, research files and equipment from their offices, Weber took a minute to ask himself a question.

"I thought, 'What should we be doing to capture this event?'" said Weber, director of IIHR, formerly the University of Iowa's Iowa Institute for Hydraulic Research.

Working almost as quickly as they did to empty their offices on the Iowa's west bank, Weber and faculty member Witold Krajewski convinced the National Science Foundation to send one of its LIDAR-equipped aircraft from the University of Florida. LIDAR, for Light Detection and Ranging, measures scattered light to gather measurements of the terrain below, creating an interactive topographic map. Conducting a flyover with the river near crest was a rare chance to map floodwater's effect on the surrounding landscape.

"It's fairly unusual to be able to observe the flood in progress," said Douglas James, National Science Foundation program officer for hydrological science.

The aircraft flew over the Iowa River basin, two kilometers either side of the river, from its confluence with the Cedar River near Columbus Junction to Coralville Lake. The scientific-grade equipment aboard the science foundation's aircraft produces data accurate to within a centimeter, compared to the several inches of standard LIDAR mapping.

"We'll be able to project the water surface elevation and how far it goes out into the flood plain" at any stage of the river, Weber said.

Data from the flyover can be combined with knowledge gathered from IIHR's program to map the river bottom using advanced sonar — "basically a $350,000 fish finder" — to create a highly detailed river model local governments can use to guide development in the watershed.

"It'll be useful for any decision they make in the flood plain," Weber said.In the wake of the flood, the National Science Foundation approved funding for nine IIHR research projects, totaling about $673,000, examining the event's causes and effects.

"We fund disaster research to learn about what happens before that material washes away or gets repaired," National Science Foundation spokesman Josh Zhamot said. "We're always sending out researchers after earthquakes, after tsunamis, after typhoons."

The disaster research project's goals "can come from the social science aspect — how people respond to the disaster — or it can come from the natural science aspect," Zhamot said.

Flying the National Science Foundation aircraft overhead during the flood delayed the state's own LIDAR mapping project. That's because the state is compiling elevation data for every square foot of Iowa, while the foundation is interested chiefly in high water's impact along a specific watershed.

"The intent of that was flood-based," said Chris Ensminger, Department of Natural Resources geographic information systems specialist. "It wasn't elevation data for the whole state."

Ensminger hopes state contractors can finish collecting LIDAR data next spring.

The flood routed IIHR staff from their offices in the C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Lab across the river from the UI power plant from June 13 through Aug. 20. Since then, "the phone's ringing non-stop off the hook," Weber said.

"The state of Iowa has not made a priority of water and resources over the past several years," he said.

Weber, 42, a Dyersville native who joined IIHR in 1993 and became its director four years ago, served as an advisory member of the Rebuild Iowa Commission.

"It's very clear that our understanding of how our rivers and our watersheds work is very imperfect," he said. For instance, current river-crest predictions may be as accurate as possible with current resources, but "this data is changing all the time," Weber said. "Let's take into account the changes in the landscape."

To help do that, IIHR has applied to National Science Foundation to establish itself as the National Center for Integrated Research and Collaborative Learning on Floods. If approved, the center would receive $5 million annually from foundation for five years, after which it must become self-sustaining. Weber expects a decision in about a year.

"Our vision of the center is to really engage the local communities," he said. "We feel we're well-positioned."