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National Water Center Goes to College in Tuscaloosa

Wed September 19, 2012 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Construction on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Water Resources Science and Services (aka the National Water Center) began in spring 2012 on the University of Alabama (UA) campus in Tuscaloosa.
Construction on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Water Resources Science and Services (aka the National Water Center) began in spring 2012 on the University of Alabama (UA) campus in Tuscaloosa.
Construction on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Water Resources Science and Services (aka the National Water Center) began in spring 2012 on the University of Alabama (UA) campus in Tuscaloosa. Despite its 19th-century façade, the new Center will feature modern amenities, such as a high energy-efficient cooling system and daylight harvesting.

Construction on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Water Resources Science and Services (aka the National Water Center) began in Spring 2012 on the University of Alabama (UA) campus in Tuscaloosa. The project will result in a first-of-its-kind facility that will combine hydrological forecasting operations and research under one roof to support field operations, improve joint agency coordination and address emerging stakeholder needs.

“Water resource issues are complex, multi-disciplinary and growing, as we’ve seen with this year’s floods in the northeast and the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers and the prolonged drought across much of the South,” said NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. “The necessary expertise and capabilities to address these cross-boundary issues rarely reside within one agency or organization. There is an increasing need for close partnerships among federal agencies and local, state and regional entities; the National Water Center provides a focal point to address this national need.”

The new national hydrologic operations center is intended to enhance water forecasting capabilities by facilitating collaboration between NOAA and other federal agencies that share water responsibilities, enabling it to better serve the nation by addressing complex water problems related to scarcity, flood and climate change. It also will improve the nation’s ability to manage water resources, prepare for water disasters and respond to increasing water challenges, as well as provide various support services and perform administrative functions of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Among other functions, the center will include a water resources forecasting operations center, an applied water resources research and development laboratory, a geo-intelligence laboratory and a distance learning center.

Watering Hole

NOAA, established in 1807, uses cutting-edge research and high-tech instrumentation to provide citizens, planners, emergency managers and others with reliable weather information, from daily weather forecasts and storm warnings to climate monitoring and coastal restoration and marine commerce. An international leader in scientific and environmental matters, its services affect more than one-third of the country’s gross domestic product.

The National Water Center is part of NOAA’s commitment to create a weather-ready nation, in which the country is able to prepare for and respond to environmental events that affect safety, health, the environment, the economy and homeland security. The center will be a cornerstone of this effort by providing emergency managers with detailed maps that explicitly show forecasted locations and effects of flooding, so they can direct their evacuation and mitigation measures more effectively. New forecasts of water supply and availability will help plan for uncertain water futures, build more resilient communities and create new business opportunities.

Currently, there are 122 local Weather Forecast Offices supported by the agency’s 13 regional River Forecast Centers and national forecast offices, including the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center and Climate Prediction Center.

“This will be the central nerve center,” said Don Cline, chief, Hydrology Lab, Office of Hydrologic Development, National Weather Service, NOAA. “Other national centers do other things; this is the first in the water realm.”

He went on to explain that his department in Washington D.C. currently sends information to the 122 weather forecast offices, rather than replicate the technology to run sophisticated models in each location. The 13 water offices run local models.

“There are no large-scale models for them,” Cline said.

Many critical decisions that save lives and enhance the economy rely on timely, reliable water information. NOAA forecasts soil moisture, snow pack and rain on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. They provide precipitation and evaporation information vital to creating a water budget and used as a guideline for agriculture, the construction trade, water resource managers and the river transportation industry.

The new National Water Center will strengthen the nation’s water forecast capabilities not only by assisting NOAA to provide more information about flooding, but also by broadening their mission, allowing them to track droughts and regions where the flow is too low for ecosystems.

“We’ve never had the capability to provide this information before. This facility is the first of its kind and we’ll be doing new stuff,” Cline stated.

The building will be used as a consortium of cutting-edge water resource integrated services with complementary operational missions in water science, observation, prediction and management. To complement the work of the agencies, the National Water Center intends to create a reciprocal relationship with UA and plans for the new facility to provide avenues of hydrological research to UA students and staff.

“The research conducted at the National Water Center at the University of Alabama will be critical to gaining an increased understanding of our vital water resources,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, on hand for the groundbreaking ceremony. “This Center will allow us as a nation to better predict and manage various water-related ecological problems while fostering nationwide collaboration on water issues.”

Head Waters — Headquarters

When the new facility is completed in May 2013, Cline estimates nearly 200 staff will be onsite, with additional relationships across campus augmenting efforts. The initiative will see Integrated Water Resources Science and Services, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey work together in the same location.

“They identified the need for a physical presence where the three agencies work together. It saves money,” explained Cline.

According to a NOAA press release, “The growing need and demand for better and timely water forecast information and services requires close partnerships among federal ’water’ agencies, because each brings a unique set of complementary tools and information to the table. The necessary expertise and capabilities to address increasingly complex, multi-disciplinary water resource issues reside in more than 20 federal agencies and academia.”

The new facility is owned by NOAA, Cline said, although located on the UA campus. Funding earmarked in 2009-2010 directed them to build on campus, he explained.

“It’s an opportunity to have the facility joined with students and faculty related to water.”

He also said that the unique location provides opportunities for training experience and enables them to be “cutting edge” with regard to R&D, although he says they will remain “mostly operational, monitoring and forecasting the nation’s resources.”

However, locating the building on Alabama’s oldest public university posed construction challenges.

“Campus guidelines are narrow,” Cline noted. “The challenge is to fit the look of a pre-Civil War campus.”

The University of Alabama is a student-centered research university founded in 1831 as the state’s first public college, established by constitutional provision under statutory mandates and authorizations. In 1865 Union troops spared only seven of the buildings on the campus. Of the principal buildings remaining, the President’s Mansion and its outbuildings still serve as the president’s on-campus residence. Other buildings have new uses: Gorgas House, at different times the dining hall, faculty residence, and campus hotel, now serves as a museum. The Roundhouse, originally a sentry box for cadets, later a place for records storage, is a campus historical landmark. The Observatory, now Maxwell Hall, is home to the Computer-Based Honors Program.

Building footprint limitations require a two-story structure with a partial basement. The steel structure will feature a brick veneer façade with limestone columns, in keeping with the period look, Cline indicated.


Budgeted at $18 million, the 63,000-sq.-ft. (52,676 sq. m) structure will reflect sustainable design principles and meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Cline said water conservation and water retention for irrigation are the targeted areas.

Triune-Beck, Joint Venture V of Dallas, won last year’s public bid on the design/build, fast-track project. Preliminary work has begun, Cline indicated. Site prep included demolition of a small building to make way for the state-of-the-art facility.

Crews will be incorporating a cut-and-fill technique on the relatively flat campus.

“They’re not removing a lot of dirt,” Cline said. “They’re doing a little grade leveling, but it’s pretty level, with only a four-foot slight grade.”

Dirt removed for the partial basement will be incorporated in a “landscaping element,” he noted.

Crews are currently working on relocating the crisscrossing utilities. When the building is complete, it will tie in to the university’s utilities.

Despite its 19th-century façade, the new Center will feature modern amenities, such as a high energy-efficient cooling system and daylight harvesting.

“It will have an open office style inside, with clerestory windows letting in light. Its triangular shape will showcase a rotunda with a 12-ft. skylight. In addition, a large skylight on a gable in the front of the building lets in a lot of light,” Cline added.

The Water Center isn’t the only construction project on the UA campus.

“The campus is growing and upgrading — refurbishing,” Cline states. “There are three or four other buildings under construction. They’re very active in construction right now.”

This is one building that NOAA staff “knew we needed,” Cline believes. “It’s an information game: where the water is, what it’s doing and how long it will be there.”

The new facility will provide the nation with consistent water resources monitoring and forecast information, integrating and combining the capabilities of multiple federal water partners to expand and improve river and flood forecasting, enhance water resource management, accelerate the application of research to real-world uses and provide a single portal for water resources information.

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