The new Louisiana Watershed Flood Center at UL Lafayette is poised to be a linchpin of state and regional flood mitigation efforts.
It was created earlier this year as part of the Institute for Coastal and Water Research.
The center will use numerical models and data, culled from a network of electronic monitoring gauges placed in rivers, bayous and coulees, to identify flooding hot spots. That will enable local governments to better understand the dynamics of flooding and how to prepare for – and possibly prevent – it, said Dr. Emad Habib, a civil engineering professor who will direct the center.
“We look at the center as an effort to help local communities and regional agencies that will be in charge of flood mitigation. We want to provide technical expertise and solutions on how to move forward with watershed management,” he said.
Watersheds are areas of land that drain water to rivers, bayous and other tributaries.
In Louisiana, watershed management historically has been a local concern, with individual cities and parishes responsible for drainage basins within their jurisdictions. But Habib contends there has long been a problem with that division of responsibility.
“Watersheds cross political boundaries and break those boundaries. We need to prepare ourselves as a region.
“We are a university, so we are not really affiliated with a certain political boundary,” he continued. “We hope we can bring people together within an environment where they don’t feel like it’s this parish versus that parish.”
Many of the region’s waterways are connected. Habib said flood mitigation efforts should be unified as well.
Unprecedented, stunning floods in 2016 brought that lesson home. Between Aug. 11 and Aug. 13, more than 30 inches of rain fell in South Louisiana. The economic impact of the storms topped $8.7 billion across 20 parishes. Thirteen people died statewide as a result of the deluge.
Nearly 23 inches of rain besieged Lafayette Parish alone. The Vermilion River crested 5 feet above flood stage, reversing the natural flow of bayous, coulees and other watersheds, and inundating roads, businesses and neighborhoods with water. About 2,000 homes were affected; many were destroyed.
Habib said the 2016 flood “brought everything into perspective,” about the need for comprehensive mitigation efforts backed by data and analysis an interdisciplinary academic entity can provide. University faculty from engineering, geosciences, architecture and design, and the humanities will be affiliated with the flood center.
A coulee directs water in Lafayette after heavy rains in 2016 (The Advertiser).
Louisiana has 12 large watersheds. The U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operate gauges along inland waterways.
“But if you go away from those main rivers, over the hundreds and thousands of channels that Louisiana has, there is no monitoring whatsoever. During storms, people don’t really know what’s going on at the local coulee or channel that impacts their neighborhood,” Habib said.
Lafayette’s Moncus Park is a proving ground in the effort to fill that information gap.
In partnership with the Acadiana Planning Commission and the Teche-Vermilion Freshwater District, Habib and Dr. Robert Miller, a UL Lafayette assistant civil engineering professor, have installed sensors in Coulee Mine, which bisects the park and flows into the Vermilion River.
The pilot project uses several kinds of gauges. Some are mounted on a bridge with ultrasonic sensors pointed toward the water. Others are tethered to the side of the coulee and float in the water.
The gauges measure rainfall, and the flow rate and height of water running through the coulee. The data is automatically transferred, via an on-site, solar-powered communications hub, to an online database, providing real-time monitoring that eventually will be made available to the public on the internet.
The Moncus Park pilot project will be expanded to include between 200 and 300 sensors placed in watersheds throughout the region. The $2.4 million price tag for the monitoring network will come from $25 million in federal aid the region received after the 2016 floods.
The data the gauges collect will enable the center to collaborate with the Acadiana Planning Commission on flood models for the Mermentau, Vermilion-Teche and Atchafalaya watersheds.
In May, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced creation of the Council on Watershed Management. Its aim: to adopt regional approaches to flood and drainage planning that mirror Acadiana’s efforts.
The Louisiana Watershed Flood Center has since received inquiries from planning agencies in Calcasieu, Cameron and Sabine parishes.
“They want our help,” Miller said. “This is a Louisiana problem. The more people you have looking at flooding, the more brains you put on it, the more likely it is that a solution will emerge.”
Main photo: Dr. Emad Habib, left, and Dr. Robert Miller discuss water gauges by the Vermilion River (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas).
An up-to-date textbook that can be tailored
A researcher at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is leading a project to create a virtual platform that will enable educators and students across the globe to make contributions and share content.
The web-based platform – HydroLearn – will address flood forecasting, flood protection and drought mitigation. Real-time data, interactive maps, case-based research, links to databases, lesson plans and workbooks are a sampling of what the online hub will house.
Once complete, students and professors who log in will be able to tailor material about water-related issues in a region, state, or a specific location in a community, such as a bayou.
“You will basically produce your own version of this web-based textbook. It won’t be a static resource,” said Dr. Emad Habib, a civil engineering professor at UL Lafayette.
Habib is principal investigator for the four-year project. It is funded by a $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant. Researchers at Brigham Young and Utah State universities will help build the system. Hydrolearn is being developed in collaboration with the National Water Center and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science. It builds on an earlier HydroViz project also funded by NSF.
Fellowships will be awarded to faculty members and post-doctoral students – including at other universities – who will help develop and test the cyber infrastructure.
HydroLearn will give users the ability to create individualized content that they can share with others, Habib said.
The sharing aspect is important.
Information gleaned in Louisiana – developing technology to funnel floodwater into a depleted aquifer, for example – could benefit researchers in a region experiencing drought.
“Water considerations are critical in our world. How do we protect people from the hazards of water? How do we manage water? How can water be used sustainably for industry and irrigation?” Habib asked.
HydroLearn will be geared primarily toward engineering and geosciences students preparing for careers in water management and water infrastructure.
As an “open-source” platform accessible to anyone, however, HydroLearn will be a global resource for the study of hydrology, a branch of science that deals with water on the Earth’s surface and in its atmosphere.
Flood analysis components of HydroLearn will aid UL Lafayette engineering students who are trying to develop and design retention basins or other flood mitigation projects.
“It’s problem-based, hands-on learning,” Habib explained.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.