UA at the forefront of water studies

Alabama Water Institute, National Water Center lead the way

Rendering of the future U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility at the University of Alabama.

Mississippi’s loss of an outdated hydrologic study center is most definitely Alabama’s gain, as the U.S. Geological Survey joins forces with the University of Alabama to create a state-of-the-art Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility to develop and test instruments to predict water quality and quantity worldwide.

It’s a welcome addition to the Tuscaloosa campus for Scott Rayder, executive director of the Alabama Water Institute and former chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the George W. Bush administration. The Institute, NOAA’s National Water Center and the new USGS facility will work side-by-side at UA to care for this precious resource.

“I was recruited by the university to come down and stand up a center of excellence around three legs of a stool — the first leg is the facility, the second is the NOAA Cooperative and the third is a global water security center,” Rayder says. 

“We want to produce graduates from the University of Alabama who will be employed at USGS and NOAA. I want Alabama to be a major pipeline for hydrological services around the nation and around the world. This is a time in the world where water is the new gold. We have to have water. Alabama graduates will be at the vanguard of this new water economy that is in front of us.”

The university was selected as the site of the new HIF “for the opportunities it provided to dovetail with other water-related research and development being conducted on campus, including the NOAA National Water Center,” says Rayder. Also, it allows the program “to tap into the intellectual reservoir of strong hydrological researchers and put these capabilities into play.”

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“We can take research out of the University of Alabama and make it operational,” Rayder says. “We can take the physical measurements of water, but we can also measure environmental DNA to determine the health of an ecosystem. We can actually get into the concept of ecosystem forecasting. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, that was not possible.”

The 95,000-square-foot, two-story facility, slated to break ground in March 2022, is expected to be ready by November 2023 and will include an artificial river, along with a hydraulics lab, water quality labs, field-testing facilities, environmental chambers, sensor innovation space, warehouse, training labs, network operations center and administrative offices for approximately 40 employees. A dedication is planned in late April.

“It’s a significantly sized facility and so beautiful,” Rayder says. “The issue here is that we have to make sure (water gauges and instrumentation) function in different environments. That’s one of the nice things about Alabama. We are the richest state in terms of freshwater biodiversity. I think people don’t understand how good we are in this space as a state. If we can measure this in Alabama, we can build sensors to measure water anywhere rich in biodiversity.”

Rayder, a self-proclaimed nerd about water measurement technology, says the U.S. research standards that emerge from the new facility’s studies of string gauges and other sensors will become global standards used to measure drought-stricken regions and areas impacted by rising sea levels. 

“We can use this technology to understand how much water is out there and if there is going to be enough,” Rayder says. “It can let us know when people put water in their bodies if it will make them sick. Alabama will be a research leader for information that can be used around the U.S. for the betterment of society.”

The facility’s test results also could be a boon for Alabama in terms of manufacturing and selling the kind of equipment that is most effective in measuring water quality.

“Companies in Alabama may have the ability to commercialize this research,” he says. “If you can build a water heater, you can probably build a string gauge. We have businesses in Alabama that can do that.”

The facility will include a tilting flume and test basin for simulating river and stream processes, and a 350-foot-long tow tank and carriage that will provide a national water velocity standard for calibrating field instrumentation.

“The heart of that water observing system research we are going to develop here at the University of Alabama is to understand ultimately how we deliver water quality and quantity,” he says. “When you turn on the tap, you make a lot of assumptions. We want to make sure people understand about the water they are using and that they have sufficient amounts and specific quality.”

The HIF could also be instrumental in supporting research models related to flooding.  

“In the private sector, we don’t do flood research, but we have a lot of opportunity to undergird it,” Rayder says. “We are standing up a public-private academic nexus that will take science out of the lab and to those who can forecast water for the public. We can build those networks that our government relies on.”

The sensors being researched by the facility can also detect amphibian DNA. Amphibians, such as salamanders and frogs, are very sensitive to environmental change and can be harbingers of what is to come — like canaries in a coal mine.

“We will be able to look at the ecosystems in ways we never have,” he says. “It’s pretty darn exciting. It gives us a forecast to look up into the watershed and understand what’s happening. How do you apply that? It really hasn’t been done before, but this could have benefits for agriculture in Alabama and other areas. We have really good water quality here. Ten percent of all freshwater in the U.S. either emanates from or passes through Alabama.”

Congress allocated $38.5 million for a new facility to replace the previous center at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, with the requirement to co-locate with complementary academic and federal partners. The brain trust in Tuscaloosa made the university an obvious choice.

Studies originating at the new facility will use sensors to determine where water is coming from, where it’s going and where the quality is best.

Rayder says the work will further studies by E.O. Wilson, a UA graduate known as “the father of biodiversity.”

“We want to build on his legacy,” Rayder says. “This is great for the development of the state and for the university’s students to be pivotal and important players in the future of world economy. We have great scientific opportunities that will be coupled with outstanding commercial opportunities. Every sector in Alabama is going to benefit from this facility. The idea of Alabama researchers being able to work with their USGS colleagues is a really big deal.”

“We want to create a global water model that is world class,” Rayder says. “We want to be known as the national center for hydrological research in the U.S. My job is to put the pieces together. We have the resources, and this really puts us on the map as a national center of excellence. We are here to do great things and to be at the heart of the water world.”

Cara Clark is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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