Student’s research at National Water Center will lead to a more weather-ready nation

Brenda Bazan (center), a senior environmental sciences major at UTRGV, is pictured presenting the research she conducted this summer at the National Water Center at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She was among 34 students from across the nation that attended a seven-week institute focused on building a national model to close the gap between flood forecasting and local emergency response.

By Gail A. Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – AUG. 26, 2016 –  The work this summer by a senior environmental science student at  The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley  will one day be part of a national model to close the gap between flood forecasting and local emergency response, making the United States a more weather-ready nation.  

Brenda Bazan, 22, from Brownsville, was the only undergraduate among 34 graduate students from 21 universities across the nation who spent seven weeks at the  Innovators Program Summer Institute  held at the  National Water Center (NWC)  located at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“At first I thought I was going to be intimidated but we all had different skills to bring to the table,” she said.

Students worked on projects categorized under four domains: flood modeling, inundation mapping, forecast errors and emergency response.   

Bazan used her knowledge of hydrology and skills in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to analyze existing high-resolution light detection and ranging ( LiDAR ) topography data. LiDAR is a technology that uses lasers directed from planes to get hyper-resolution elevation data that is accurate up to plus or minus an inch in vertical accuracy and can provide an elevation data point every one to two meters horizontally. 

The LiDAR-produced digital elevation models were then compared by Bazan’s team with the national  U.S. Geological Survey ’s hydrography data set ( NHD ), a GIS data set that represents every stream, river, creek, canal, and ditch in the U.S. The team was able to identify and correct inconsistencies, inaccuracies or missing data to present a more accurate drainage network of the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley.

“I primarily zoomed in on the Brownsville Resaca and Arroyo watersheds,” Bazan said. “It was a lot of deleting and adding stuff. The NHD that we corrected is going to represent more of what these watersheds actually look like. This is one of the first steps to creating more accurate and faster flood alert systems.”

The  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s  National Weather Service opened the NWC just one year ago. The center is designed to be the hub of integrated water prediction and forecasting for the federal government with a goal of better managing threats to the nation’s water resources and mitigating impacts to communities.   

During the institute, students collaborated with academic researchers nationwide under the coordination of the  Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI), to participate in the National Flood Interoperability Experiment (NIFE) that seeks to build a new high resolution, near real-time hydrologic simulation and forecasting model for the U.S. 

Bazan’s UTRGV teacher and mentor Dr. Jude Benavides, associate professor of hydrology and environmental sciences in the  School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences, said it was important to have UTRGV representation at the institute. He said the two watersheds that Bazan’s case study focused on encompasses almost 90 percent of the lower Rio Grande Valley population.

“There are forecasting challenges down here that are drastically different from any portions of the rest of Texas. We are extremely flat and anytime you have a very flat terrain, flood forecasting becomes very difficult,” Benavides said. “We also have clay soil and are coastal, both making our region more conducive to flooding.”

Benavides said Bazan, who took his hydrology and GIS courses last year, jumped at the chance to attend the institute and did an exemplary job. He said the institute provides students the opportunity to solve real-world problems, which gets students excited. 

“They get excited when they get to see what they are doing at a very local scale – something as simple as making sure that a digital line on a map is connected the right way to the right portion of the creek – is actually going to be reflected and implemented at the national level in a map that everyone can download and use,” Benavides said.

“I think our linkages with these kinds of consortiums and the National Water Center are going to prove invaluable as we continue to grow both our environmental and civil engineering programs here at UTRGV – both of which will increasingly deal with water resources issues in the LRGV and the surrounding region,” Benavides added. 

Bazan particularly praised the opportunity to work alongside and receive guidance from Benavides, the team’s academic advisor, as well as the institute’s director Dr. David R. Maidment, Hussein M. Alharthy Centennial Chair in Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the  Center for Research in Water Resources, and Edward Clark, director of Geo-Intelligence at NOAA’s Office of Water Prediction. 

Each team had to summarize their key findings in a report that will be part of the official Summer Institute Report 2016 that will be published online by CUAHSI.

While there, the students also made some time for fun during excursions to nearby cities, like Nashville, Tenn. and Pensacola, Fla.

Bazan said she got a lot of questions from other participants about living on the border, the authenticity of the Mexican food served in Alabama and about resacas, which few had heard of. She said the opportunity to participate went beyond learning something new and helping address water issues impacting the Valley.

“I was proud that I helped turn heads to see UTRGV, to see people recognize it as a prestigious university, even though it is still very young,” she said.

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