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Q&A with IML-CZO Investigator Larry Weber (University of Iowa)

Dr. Larry Weber is an investigator with the IML-CZO, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, and also Director of IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. Photo: IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering

08 Jun 2016

Image: Dr. Larry Weber is an investigator with the IML-CZO, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, and also Director of IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. Photo: IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering [Click image to enlarge]

Dr. Larry Weber is an investigator for the IML-CZO who serves on the faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa and also acts as Director for the UI's IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering.

*Some quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity*

You hold your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD all from the University of Iowa. Are you originally from Iowa? What was it that drew you to civil and environmental engineering?

I grew up on a small dairy farm in northeast Iowa just outside of the town of Dyersville. It happened that there was a construction business that had set up shop next to my parents’ farm and the gentleman that owned that business was a University of Iowa College of Engineering graduate. My dad only had an eighth grade education and really was unfamiliar with the whole university environment and wasn’t really able to guide me in that way so he said I should talk to him. He really became a mentor for me as a young person and in high school. He pointed me to the University of Iowa and I came down and took a look and really liked it. So I’m very much from Eastern Iowa, I’ve lived my whole life in Iowa, and I’m very proud to be here.

What are your main research contributions to the IML-CZO?

I’ve always been very supportive of research in the Clear Creek Watershed. We at IIHR have supported faculty research interests in the watershed for many years, thinking of developing a experimental watershed that we could leverage for various funding opportunities so as director of IIHR I helped to support (IML-CZO Co-Director) Thanos Papanicolaou, (IML-CZO Investigator) Marian Muste, (Iowa Flood Center Director) Witek Krajewski, and many others that have been involved in research in the Clear Creek Watershed.

My work has evolved as many researchers do throughout their careers. My early work was mostly related to salmon passage on northwest rivers, the Columbia and Snake Rivers in particular. Then I started to evolve to more of a Midwestern research focus. That was really kind of highlighted in 2008 when we had devastating floods that impacted much of Eastern Iowa. Witek Krajewski and I co-founded the Iowa Flood Center, with Witek’s focus on hydrology and watershed processes and mine on free surface or open channel flows. With action between the two of us we put forth the Iowa Flood Center to the state legislature. So now Witek and I work very actively to keep that program serving the state of Iowa. My research evolved into more watershed processes, flood forecasting, stream flow forecasting, simulation of stream flow in terms of quality and quantity. My work these days, in addition to supporting the Iowa Flood Center research, involves a lot of work on water quality. As the state of Iowa is now working to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we’re working with watersheds in different locations in Iowa to look at scenario assessment for what types of practices would benefit those watersheds both from a water quality perspective as well as reducing stream flow from heavy rainfall.

So those two things – flood center research and Iowa water quality research – have come together into a new opportunity that we have and that’s a program funded by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through the National Disaster Resiliency Competition. IIHR and many folks contributed here to a proposal on behalf of the state of Iowa that was awarded this year more than 96 million dollars for the state. Of that money, about 40 million dollars is going to be allocated to a watershed program where we will look at distributed projects within eight watersheds in Iowa to reduce stream flow and improve water quality and one of those is the Clear Creek Watershed so that’s a nice overlap with ongoing research as well as some upcoming funding that will come from the federal government.

Why did you decide to get involved with the IML-CZO project?

I’m really excited about the IML-CZO and its role and work that’s ongoing in Clear Creek. One of the things that I take pride in and am also very excited about is that through faculty leadership here and support from IIHR we saw that as an opportunity. Going back ten or more years ago, we made some investments there and had some faculty that did wonderful things. Thanos Papanicolaou did tremendous work in the Clear Creek Watershed and over a long period of time built it up to the point where it could become a valuable watershed in a national watershed program. To me that’s very exciting.

When we layer on top of that, this new project with the HUD funding it will give us an opportunity to engage landowners on installing conservation practices like farm ponds, wetlands, reconnecting floodplains, bioreactors and other nutrient management practices. By getting those practices built on the ground and having the backbone of all of the experiments and all of the research that is being done out there, we should really have a great location to look at before and after those practices are installed.

In what ways have graduate and undergraduate students been able to work with you on research and other projects for the IML-CZO?

I think a rewarding part of how our research has evolved at IIHR for the last couple of years is that we have more of a state focus with the flood center, the nutrient center, the geologic survey and this HUD project as well as work that could easily be translated to other Midwestern states or communities. We’re really drawing a lot of students to the program. It’s been fun for me to see students come in and be involved in our research and maybe being able to address a particular need in their own community. One student came to us from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, he did research for the Iowa Flood Center, and his research was to create a set of community inundation maps so that for any stage-level at the U.S. Geological Survey gauge in that community, the extent of the flooding can be seen on an online, Google maps-like environment. Doing these Iowa-centered projects, these Midwestern-related projects, it’s really fun to see students get involved with that, undergraduates and graduates both.

Are there any research projects you're currently working on that will be applicable to IML-CZO?

There are a couple of things that will be going on. Certainly the CZO has its own network of instrumentation. For our watershed project we’ll also be installing some instrumentation: soil moisture, soil temperature, stream gauges as needed although it’s fairly well gauged for stream flow in Clear Creek. We’ll also have water quality sensors that we’ll be installing. At this moment we’re still in the kickoff phase of that project. In Clear Creek it’s the Clear Creek Watershed Coalition that we’ll work with to help organize the meetings, the events, and the engagement of the landowners on a quarterly basis, so we’ll work directly with that watershed authority that’s just been created. Then we’ll be developing some very high-end, physics-based mathematical models that allow us to forecast and predict the amount of runoff that we get off of the landscape and into the streams, and the type of water quality conditions that will create as well.

Many times people that do watershed modeling do it in a lump parameter, or a courser process, where they define hydrologic units or sub-watersheds and that becomes the calculation scale. So if a model is built for Clear Creek it might have several hundred sub-watersheds that it would define, maybe even a thousand. The type of modeling we’ll do will define the watershed down to a half or a quarter of an acre so we’ll be looking at tens of thousands of watershed units out there. It’s on a very detailed level. We’ll build these models, we’ll validate it with the existing data from the CZO and from other sources, we’ll add additional instruments to help in the validation of the models, and then we’ll use those models to forecast the benefit of these conservation practices on stream flow both in terms of quantity and quality.

In addition to your work with the IML-CZO and teaching in the College of Engineering, you’re also the director of IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa. Tell me a bit about the center and the work you do.

IIHR is one of these wonderful academic research organizations, very interdisciplinary. During the early history of IIHR it was mostly faculty from the College of Engineering and mostly from the mechanical and the civil and environmental engineering departments. It’s expanded a lot over the years and now in addition to the faculty-led research, we also have a couple of centers. We have the Iowa Flood Center which is part of IIHR. We also have the regent-funded Iowa Nutrient Research Center which is housed at Iowa State University. We typically have about forty or forty-five percent of the total budget responsibility for that center. The University of Northern Iowa is also involved in the Nutrient Research Center. Then the third entity within the program is the Iowa Geological Survey which provides services back to the state of Iowa for understanding groundwater as a resource both in terms quantity and quality. They also create the drought forecast for the state of Iowa.  

So when you think about the flood center, the nutrient center, and the geological survey, we have the talent and the expertise here to study things from surface water to groundwater from water quality to water quantity from drought to flood. So it’s really become a nexus of water-related research interests. In addition to all of that we still do a lot of work that’s fluids focused. We have faculty that do work in biofluids looking at blood flow in the human body, air flow into and out of the human lung. We have a ship hydrodynamics program that remains very strong, supporting one the Office of Naval Research’s design programs. We have faculty in urban and regional planning, journalism and mass communication, geography, geosciences, public health, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, and all across the broader institution at the University of Iowa, all focused in one way or another on fluid mechanics or hydraulics and hydrology.

Considering all of the competition among the regent universities here in Iowa, it must be refreshing to see them come together for projects like these.

One of the things that I’ve really tried to articulate across the state is that we’re working in complex watershed processes. Throughout much of time people thought about things that happen out in the watershed as being the responsibility of the land grant institutions and things of a different nature being at the comprehensive universities. When we go out and work in the watershed I really like to say that we don’t have an urban agenda, we don’t have an ag agenda, we have an Iowa agenda and it’s a science-based agenda. We want to do work to make Iowa a better place for all of us to live.

By Nick Fetty (Journalism, University of Iowa)

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