Iowa Flood Center: Rivers of Data

Every hurricane season when mighty ocean-bred storms build and sweep toward the United States, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida becomes a beacon of information for coastal residents, concerned citizens, policy makers, and researchers. Created at the end of the 19th century, the center is located on the campus of Florida International University and charged with predicting and tracking the behavior of tropical depressions and hurricanes. But when rain and snowmelt cause inland lakes and rivers to swell, no comparable national center exists to provide information to downstream homeowners and municipalities at risk
from rising water.Photo of Javad Ashjaee

The Iowa Flood Center is about to change all that.

Established in 2009 and based at the University of Iowa's world-renowned IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering research institute, the advanced flood research center describes and monitors river basins, predicts flood potential, and educates policy makers and the public about the causes and nature of flooding in the state. Launched with $1.3 million dollars of state appropriations, the center is led by Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Rose and Joseph Summers Chair in Water Resources Witold Krajewski.

The idea to establish a center arose from the floodwaters that roared through the UI campus in 2008, inundating more than a dozen buildings, including the C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory.

"As we were leaving the building, Professor Krajewski and IIHR director Larry Weber were saying, 'We have to collect data on this!" says flood center managing director Carmen Langel.

Historically, the institute focused its research on river systems around the world, with little emphasis on Iowa. The 2008 flood, however, profoundly affected the University of Iowa campus, and Weber and other IIHR researchers became critically important resources for UI administrators, public safety officials, governor's office, legislators, policy makers, the National Guard, and the public. With all eyes on the institute, Weber and his colleagues seized the moment and created a unique research center to study floods and flooding.

"Working with the general public and sharing our resources has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the Iowa Flood Center," Weber says. "We are delighted to be able to help Iowans and others better understand and improvetheir resiliency to floods."

"Our vision for the center has been to shorten the path between research and application," notes Krajewski."Traditionally, researchers get an idea, write a proposal, conduct a few trials, gather and analyze data, and write papers that a few of their colleagues may read. Even if a researcher comes up with an exceptional idea, it may be years before someone might actually act on it. But in the center, the creators of ideas and producers of research work with collaborators to also be the implementers of the fruits of that research."

Photo of Javad AshjaeeKrajewski describes the 2008 flood as "a nice challenge for us." In between sandbagging and moving the contents of their offices to their homes, IIHR researchers collected data on water levels, contaminants, and flood patterns. During the twelve weeks when the building was vacated, they brainstormed a framework for the new center and began contacting potentialfunding sources. The researchers returned to the building with outlines of the new center in place and newly formedpartnerships with UI colleagues across campus. By the first anniversary of the flood, the team also had garnered a half-milliondollars of National Science Foundation funds for flood-related research and secured first year funding of $1.3M for a new Iowa Flood Center. Today the center's work is supported by more than $20 million in state and federal grants.

Despite its infancy, the Iowa Flood Center has already managed to launch a number of significant projects that will help Iowans better predict and prepare for floods. The Floodplain Mapping Project, for instance, will develop floodplain maps for the 85 Iowa counties declared federal disaster areas following the 2008 floods. In collaboration with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the center will use LIDAR (laser radar) data to develop highly accurate digital elevation models of the land surrounding stream networks draining one square mile or more. The researchers will describe the river networks and develop computer models to simulate flood potential.

"It's an exciting project," IIHR research engineer and project manager Nathan Young says. "We can resolve data down to particular hill slopes, which will help us predict runoff and the route of water as it flows through a basin. The maps can be used by individuals, policy makers, and public officials to help guide decisions about land use and management."

Langel adds that "these maps will be powerful tools for decision makers because any drop of water that falls in one of those basins has the potential to flood someone downstream."

Center researchers collaborate with UI colleagues in geography, mathematics, public policy, and law, as well as partners at Iowa State University, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and communities throughout Iowa. The center also relies on about twenty undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom designed a relatively inexpensive stream-level sensor that uses sonar to measure river levels. Attached to the side of a bridge, the sensor measures the distance from the device to the water surface every fifteen minutes and then transmits the data via cell phone to a central database. The student designed project was funded by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which hopes to expand the pilot project into a statewide reporting system.

One of the goals of the Iowa Flood Center is to attract new, talented researchers to the University, including those interested in the science and public policy surrounding issues of sustainability. As center researchers work to better understand the behavior of water in river basins, they also seek to better educate the public about flood risk.

The Iowa Flood Center is unique in the world, but floods can happen anywhere, and researchers hope the work they do here will have an impact wherever people are at risk from rising waters.

"The scope of the problem of floods and flooding is very broad," Krajewski says. "With excellent collaborators and the right funding, we will be busy for many years to come."