Evolving the National Weather Service. 6. Water.

Continuing from the previous LOTRW posts


In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was common to hear newcomers to the agency speak of “putting the O back in NOAA.” There was the feeling in some quarters that NOAA had been in the hands of the meteorologists since its founding (the famous meteorologist Robert M. White had been Administrator from 1970-1978) and that it was “the oceanographers’ turn.” Walk the office corridors, and you’d also hear talk contrasting “the wet side of NOAA” and the “dry side.”

In vain I would push back. “It’s the wet side and the moist side,” I’d argue. “Without water in its three phases, the atmosphere would be essentially uninteresting.” By that I meant that atmospheric circulations on all scales would be weak and free of the violent extremes. Picture a uniformly cloudless sky. Perhaps the occasional dust devil, but no tornadoes. No rain or snow or sleet or hail. No lightning. An impoverished hydrologic cycle. Diminished terrestrial ecosystems hugging the coasts.

Fact is, it’s the hydrologic cycle including the atmospheric dimension that makes our planet the marvelously vibrant and congenial place we know and love. It’s the hydrologic cycle which knits together the oceans, atmosphere, land and life itself to such an extent that they can’t be fully comprehended in isolation but only as an integrated entity. It’s the hydrologic cycle that drives Earth’s trademark extremes: when it rains, it pours. It’s also water in its myriad forms and the great variation in its availability and form from place to place that drives a unique set of policy challenges for the agency. Water policy has historic roots that are local- and state-based, versus national. Water has precious and evident status as a scarce and easily corrupted resource that makes it an obvious subject for regulation, not just observation. It’s water that sings the siren song of mystery and challenge that draws so many early-career professionals to the NOAA ranks.

These realities have always been understood by every NOAA employee, from the bench forecaster to the fisheries biologist to the IT specialist and HR professional to the manager and the policy official. NOAA’s river forecasting role predates the National Weather Service, and predates its antecedent the Weather Bureau. It goes all the way back to its 1870-origins in the U.S. Army Signal Service.

That said, the NWS struggled to give hydrologic forecasting and water forecasting and management responsibilities their due in the late 20th-century Modernization and Associated Restructuring. Major investments in NEXRAD, ASOS, AWIPS, the reorganization of the field offices, and a new generation of satellites tested the limits of the constrained federal budgets and contentious political climate of the time. Hydrologic modernization and restructuring received short shrift.

That doesn’t look to be the case in the current evolution of the National Weather Service. In part this is because flood events of the past several years juxtaposed by drought across the south and west have combined to give the issue visibility and urgency. But in part it’s because NOAA and the NWS have received an extraordinary gift – one of the last earmarks voted by Congress – a new NOAA National Water Center (NWC), located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From a press notice of May of this year:

The National Water Center, a new facility located at the University of Alabama, is poised to become an incubator for innovative breakthroughs in water prediction products and services. As the country becomes more vulnerable to water-related events, from drought to flooding, the innovative predictive science and services developed by NOAA and its partners at the National Water Center will bolster the nation’s ability to manage threats to its finite water resources and mitigate impacts to communities.

The center will be a hub of integrated water prediction and forecasting for the federal government. Scientists and forecasters at the 65,000 square-foot building will collaborate to provide the nation with enhanced water-related products and services to support water management decisions across the country. Bringing experts together in this new collaborative center provides an unprecedented opportunity to improve federal coordination in the water sector to address 21st century water resource challenges, such as water security, and analysis and prediction of hydrologic extremes, like droughts and floods.

 Note the reference to partners: the new entity will house not only NOAA professionals but also staff from other federal agencies such as the Corps of Engineers and the US Geological Survey, as well as academia. The NWC will cut across all aspects of the NWS evolution: management, employees; stakeholders, and technology and infrastructure.

Interestingly, the country came close to establishing just such an entity during the time of the earlier Modernization and Associated Restructuring. A National Center for Water Resources Research had been proposed in a 1983 report put out by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment: Water-Related Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture in U.S. Arid/Semi-Arid Lands. The proposal at the time called for a federally-funded R&D Center or FFRDC, modeled after the very successful National Center for Atmospheric Research. Here’s the relevant text, from pp 334-335:

Option: Establish a National Center for Water Resources Research

Congress could establish a National Center for Water Resources Research to provide a coherent and coordinated mechanism for the Nation’s university research programs in water- resources management for problem-solving and policymaking,

The mission of this center could include:

  1. Undertaking an interdisciplinary program of basic and applied research on water resources and water-resource management. In addition to research in the natural sciences and engineering, the program should include a strong component of basic and applied research in the social sciences, such as resource economics and law as they pertain to water-resources programs. The center could further assist in the conduct of site-specific research being carried out under State auspices.
  2. Developing and providing advanced and sophisticated research facilities on a scale required to cope with the broad nature of water-resources problems, and often not affordable by single universities, to be used both by the resident staff, innovative producers, and university scientists.
  3. Undertaking a program to develop and test conventional and emerging technologies for application to water-resources problems in U.S. arid/semiarid lands, including application to problems of agriculture and its sustainability in arid/semiarid lands, and coordinating work with existing Government research by USDA and State agricultural experiment stations.
  4. Serving as an objective, nonpartisan, and continuing national source of information for Congress when formulating public policy dealing with water resources, and as a link to public agencies and to the private sector for application of research findings.

The center could serve as a base for marshaling the talents of the Nation’s universities and for augmenting, but not in any sense competing with, the work already underway in the universities. Its principal function could be to enhance the effectiveness of water-resources research and to focus the full competence of the scientific community, private sector, and innovative producer on problems of water resources.

Using the example of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), an institution created some 20 years ago by an act of Congress, the center could be managed and operated by a consortium of universities with doctoral-level programs in water resources. The member universities could elect a board of trustees from member universities, industry, user groups, and the community at large. The board could be responsible for establishing broad policy guidelines, for setting program priorities and directions, and for overseeing the center’s effective management. The operation of the center could be directed by a scientist appointed by and accountable to the board of trustees,

Because a sustained effort is essential for solving crucial water problems of the West and the Nation, the funding support for the center must be stable and long term. The principal source of support for the center could be the Federal Government, with supplemental sup- port from the States and private sector,

An equally essential aspect for effective operation is that prime responsibility for program initiatives reside with the consortium of universities managing the center. This requirement is in sharp contrast with “Government-owned, contractor-operated” laboratories where program initiatives often reside in the sponsoring, mission-oriented Federal agency . This contrasting approach for the center is important since the university community is closest to research for purposes of evaluating progress and potentials. In light of this knowledge, plans and priorities designed by the consortium could take into account national, regional, and State needs. Congressional and State agency staff could be assigned periodically to the center to translate research results for policy- making and update researchers on ongoing policy debates and issues.

For purposes of administration and funding, the center could be operated by the university consortium under a prime contract arrangement with a semiautonomous scientific agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Support from other Government agencies interested in water resources could be arranged through the single contract administered by the designated agency, The style of research program management proposed above is consistent with the research-overview style and experience of NSF.

As we all know, this earlier vision wasn’t implemented. It wasn’t that the idea was flawed; just the opposite. Word at the time was the NCWRR was such a prize that the fifty states couldn’t agree on a location.

Rightly or wrongly, history will likely judge the success or failure of the current evolution of the National Weather Service largely by whether the NWC realizes its immense promise… and the extent to which the whole of NOAA is able to organize itself to slake the growing national thirst for water science and services.

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