The New York Water Science Center (NYWSC) is one of 27 water-science centers across the country that are organized within the United States Geological Survey. The USGS is the earth science research arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior in the management and protection of the nation’s natural resources. The water-science centers collectively are one of seven USGS mission areas.
Throughout New York State, the NYWSC conducts targeted research on water resources and conditions that are affected by weather, climate and manmade influences. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, the center monitors streamflow, groundwater levels, water quality, flooding and water use and availability. The center also focuses on the ecological health of rivers, lakes, reservoirs, watersheds, estuaries, and fish and wildlife.
“Our mission is to collect unbiased and timely data that’s used by emergency managers to protect life and property as well as by water-resource managers to help manage groundwater and surface-water resources, and protect and enhance water resources,” says NYWSC Director Robert Breault.
The NYWSC, which leases 30,000 square feet of space at the Rensselaer Technology Park Campus, partners with about 100 federal and state agencies (including the National Weather Service), local municipalities, universities (including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), nongovernmental organizations and tribal nations to provide the data needed to make informed decisions. These decisions relate to such issues as ecosystem health, the design of roads and bridges, and water-treatment facilities that are resilient to flooding.
Breault oversees about 150 staff members across the state who serve as hydrologists, geologists, chemists, engineers and computer scientists, among other professions. Many of them regularly wade through streams and rivers to measure water discharge or flow. They use boats, bridges and cranes to carry out their work in faster moving waters. They use acoustic doppler current profilers on boats to measure velocity at various levels of the water column, and telemetry gages are used to gather information about storm surges.
“What all this means is that as New Yorkers are moving themselves to higher ground during dangerous storms, NYWSC staff can be found heading toward high water to ensure that accurate streamflow and storm-tide data continues to be collected and delivered to the public,” Breault says. “It is this dedication that enables us to protect human health, public safety and enhance environmental sustainability.”
The NYWSC work also includes drilling and monitoring groundwater wells. There are on the order of 1,000 exploratory wells on Long Island that hydrologists measure onsite to monitor the island’s drinking water supply. About 100 more-advanced wells in upstate New York are monitored remotely. Additional exploratory wells are being drilled on the island to track saltwater encroachment into the aquifer and to inform a new model of groundwater flow.
Stage gages are also increasingly being installed along various shoreline environments. After the record-high flooding along Lake Ontario that occurred in 2017, these units were installed to measure and keep track of lake elevation.
“The data is foundational to understanding the coastal erosion processes of Lake Ontario, as well as the other Great Lakes,” Breault says.
The NYWSC also continuously looks for ways to incorporate the latest technologies for better data collection and prediction modeling, enlisting technologically savvy college students as interns to help in this endeavor.
In summer 2019, for instance, Marcus Panozzo, a computer science major at Rensselaer, worked with two other Rensselaer interns to create data fields for calculations needed to integrate new sites into the state’s surface-water monitoring network. Panozzo’s role was designing the computational methods to achieve this goal and writing large parts of the underlying Python program.
The project also included developing tools to help the NYWSC visualize the enormous size of the network and creating the front-end interface.
“This was definitely a team effort,” Panozzo says. “Toward the end, I became much more knowledgeable in this area than I could have ever anticipated. I benefited tremendously from this hands-on learning experience, and I felt that I truly made an impact.”