Carnegie Mellon University

Kerim Dickson at the National Water Center Innovators Program: 2017 Summer Institute

Moving Upstream: PhD Student Works on National Water Model

Every hour, the National Water Model (NWM) simulates current conditions across 2.7 million US streams and rivers, using data on area precipitation, snowmelt, water infiltration in the soil, and more.

Before this model’s release in 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had water flow forecasts for a mere 4,000 river locations. Now, in addition to hourly simulations, the NWM produces nationwide 10-day forecasts and an updated 30-day forecast daily, enabling forecasters to predict flash flooding and drought conditions better than ever before.

As part of the National Water Center Innovators Program: 2017 Summer Institute, Carnegie Mellon CEE PhD student Kerim Dickson spent seven weeks this summer working alongside graduate students and faculty from around the country to continue improving this important national model.

“The National Water Model is still in its infancy, and errors do occur” explains Dickson. “As a group, we designed a framework for statistically analyzing the National Water Model’s results. What we produced is an efficient way to test the model against known data and identify discrepancies between what the model says should be there, and what is actually there.”

Organized to foster the rapid development and exchange of new ideas, the Summer Institute included the opportunity for Dickson and his peers to present their findings to some of the field’s top academics along with members of the National Water Center, the US Geological Survey, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Weather Service. The group also presented a poster at the 2017 Hydroinformatics Conference in July.

Within CEE, Dickson’s PhD research focuses on a different hydrology topic—interbasin transfers, or the process of using man-made systems to move water from one basin to another, typically from an area of abundance to one in need. After first creating an inventory of all US interbasin transfers, he is now researching why each specific location was selected.

“Nobody's really looked at the drivers of these types of transfers. This is a niche that is grossly important, but simply hasn't been studied on a national scale since the 1980s,” says Dickson, who hopes that his work will provide a basis for additional study on US water scarcity and the impact of interbasin transfers.

His work has also attracted the interest of people he met at the Summer Institute, who are considering collaborating with Dickson to turn his national data set into a tool for local agencies to locate and study interbasin transfer in their areas. The Summer Institute also benefited Dickson by allowing him to take a step back from his PhD research, before returning to it with fresh eyes and a different perspective.

“For me, it was worthwhile to get out of my bubble and interact with people who are as invested in water research as I am, but who approach it from completely different angles,” says Dickson. “When I came back to my PhD project, I was able to reevaluate my research using the approaches that I'd learned from others at the Summer Institute. It was an extremely valuable experience for me both personally and academically.”