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CPO RISA team and partners win 2019 Governor’s Award for High-Impact Research




Congratulations to CPO Western Water Assessment RISA team member Jeff Lukas, who is part of an interdisciplinary team that won a Colorado 2019 Governor’s Awards for High-Impact Research. Other team members include Kelly Mahoney and Rob Cifelli of the NOAA’s Physical Sciences Division (PSD), as well as Trevor Alcott and Eric James (CIRES) of the NOAA’s Global Systems Division. In the “Pathfinding Partnerships” category, the team was recognized for their project “Avoiding deadly floods through innovative partnerships: Estimating extreme precipitation in the 21st century to enhance dam safety and community resilience.” The project produced new understanding and decision support tools for the changing risk of extreme precipitation and its impact on dam safety in the Intermountain West. 

Left to right: Eric James of CIRES and ESRL GSD, Kelly Mahoney of ESRL PSD, Rob Cifelli of ESRL PSD, and Jeff Lukas of CPO’s Western Water Assessment RISA team and CIRES (Trevor Alcott of ESRL GSD, absent).

In the last 100 years, the leading cause of dam failure and resulting loss of life has been overtopping due to inadequate or improperly designed spillways. With increases in severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events, current modeling practices for rain and snowfall has shown to be inadequate for assessing possible public safety issues regarding dams and spillways.

Leveraging 21st century scientific and engineering advances and applying creative approaches, a unique federal-state-private sector team of nationally recognized scientists, engineers, public safety officials and dam owners designed and implemented an innovative scientific approach to understanding extreme precipitation in the Rocky Mountain region. The effort was part of a larger project sponsored by the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer to update decades-old extreme precipitation estimates using modern technical methods and current scientific understanding. The team developed engineering and decision support tools that provide a scientifically defensible basis for determining the risk of extreme precipitation events to guide dam spillway design and to enhance community resilience in a changing climate. 

A series of extreme precipitation events in January 2017 pushed California’s Oroville Reservoir beyond its capacity. Dam managers had to use an emergency spillway to release water after a breach developed in the primary spillway several days earlier. Photo by Kelly M. Grow, California Department of Water Resources. 

The research is already having an impact on dam safety in Colorado, as the state seeks to update its rules and regulations for dam construction. In January 2019, the Colorado Dam Safety Office proposed a new rule to account for expected future warming and associated increases in atmospheric moisture from 2020 to 2070. The study, and its extensive review board of national experts, was designed with a larger vision: to serve as a national model for other states to follow. 

Lukas is a Research Integration Specialist for CPO’s Western Water Assessment and collaborates with water resource managers and other stakeholders to better understand and plan for climate-related vulnerabilities in the Rocky Mountain West. Mahoney is a research meteorologist on PSD’s Hydrometeorology Modeling and Applications Team and currently focuses on improving understanding of how extreme events can be better anticipated from both atmospheric and hydrologic perspectives. Cifelli is a radar meteorologist who focuses on developing improved weather, climate, and water forecasts of extreme events to better meet water management needs. He also leads PSD’s Hydrometeorology Modeling and Applications Team. James and Alcott work to simulate atmospheric phenomena to advance the state of the science for short-range, regional numerical weather prediction.

The award was presented at a ceremony on November 12 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Learn more about the project >>

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