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NASA tech zooms in on water and land

December 15, 2009 Share This!

Earlier, more accurate river flow predictions possible

  • Peninsula College and Western Washington University students hike the Olympic Mountains to measure snowpack for the North Olympic Peninsula Solutions Network in January 2008. The network enters data from satellites, sensors, water gauges and snowpack sites into a new computer river model that quickly and more accurately monitors stream flow in the Dungeness River, near Sequim, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Dwight Barry/Peninsula College.)

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SEQUIM, Wash. – In a pilot project that could help better manage the planet's strained natural resources, space-age technologies are helping a Washington state community monitor its water availability. NASA satellites and sensors are providing the information needed to make more accurate river flow predictions on a daily basis.

"World leaders are struggling to protect natural resources for future generations," said Jeff Ward, a senior research scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is managed by Battelle. "These tools help us sustainably use natural resources while balancing environmental, cultural and economic concerns."

Ward manages a project on behalf of Battelle that is helping to better predict the flow of the Dungeness River, near Sequim, Wash., with data collected by NASA instruments. The project started by creating a new model that predicts river flows in the river's surrounding valley.  It then expanded to help other communities in Kansas, Maine, Oregon and Washington state better manage their water and land resources with similar technologies.

The project  — called the North Olympic Peninsula Solutions Network —  is lead by the North Olympic Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development Council and supported by PNNL and others.

The project's results will be presented Dec. 16 at the 2009 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The project will help regional natural resource managers assess the abundance — or lack thereof — of the Dungeness River. The river model was developed to show how NASA technologies like satellites, sensors and computational models could be used to improve short-term stream flow predictions. The river model relies on snowpack and temperature data collected from satellites, as well as real-time snowpack and water data collected by various agencies.

The new Dungeness River model's calculations can tell what kind of flow to expect — from a trickle to a deluge  — on a daily and monthly basis. Before, resource managers primarily relied on either water levels physically measured at gauges or historical data to predict total expected water volume over two to six months. Neither method provided flow predictions as frequently as the new model.

Having more precise river flow predictions is especially important along the Dungeness River, where the towering Olympic Mountains create a drying rain shadow effect and steep slopes prevent above-ground water reservoirs. Sequim receives just 15 inches of rain annually. Water is so treasured that the agricultural city is home to a 114-year-old festival that celebrates a historic irrigation system.

"Improving the accuracy of stream flow predictions is important to a diverse group of water users, including irrigation-dependent farmers, planners making urban growth decisions and those concerned about salmon survival or water quality," said Clea Rome, North Olympic Peninsula RC&D coordinator. "Stream flow prediction tools can help us avoid a crisis by alerting us before droughts are in full effect, giving us enough notice to adjust water use."

But the practical use of NASA technologies isn't limited just to Sequim or river water.  The North Olympic Peninsula Solutions Network is helping four other resource, conservation and development councils tackle their unique problems.

Another resource — soil — has the Solomon Valley RC&D in north central Kansas concerned about agricultural tilling and erosion. Striking a balance between agriculture and forestry is critical for the Threshold to Maine RC&D in southwest Maine. The Wy'East RC&D is looking to better manage water supply and demand in north central Oregon.  And in Okanogan, Wash., the possibility of water shortages worries the North Central Washington RC&D.

"Space technologies can help us get the best science to the ground, to the decision makers here in the Okanogan Basin," said Samantha Bartling, North Central Washington RC&D coordinator. "We expect it'll help us more precisely predict water availability for a long time to come."

The four councils are working with North Olympic Peninsula Solutions Network leaders to determine how NASA technologies can best address their different challenges.

The project is funded by a $1.6 million grant from NASA. More information can be found at the North Olympic Peninsula Solutions Network website, http://pcnasa.ctc.edu/.

Other project partners include: the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Services; NRCS National Water and Climate Center; National Association of RC&D Councils; Idaho National Laboratory; Olympic National Park; Clallam County; The Dungeness River Management Team; The Elwha-Morse Management Team; Peninsula College and Pacific Northwest Regional Collaboratory.


REFERENCE: "NASA Water-Cycle Solutions Networks and Community of Practice Approaches to enhance Decision-making." Lucien Cox (NASA), Jeff Ward (PNNL) and Will Pozzi (WaterNet). 5:45-6 p.m., Dec. 16. Room 301, Moscone South, Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco.

The presentation abstract is available online by clicking "plan your itinerary" at http://www.agu.org/meetings/fm09/program/index.php and searching for program "IN34A-08."

 


The North Olympic Peninsula RC&D is a non-profit organization that addresses natural resource conservation and economic development issues in both Jefferson and Clallam counties in Washington state. It includes representation from county and city governments, tribes, ports and other economic development and conservation entities. For more than forty years, the Resource Conservation & Development Program (RC&D) has been administered through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  To date, the Secretary of Agriculture has designated 375 RC&D Areas across the nation.

Tags: Environment, Environmental Conservation

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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