Hydrology? District team provides professional water resources expertise, support

Omaha District
Published May 5, 2021
Jennifer Christensen (left) and Larry Morong (retired) survey a levee bank on the Missouri River checking for low spots (levee freeboard) to determine likely areas where overtopping might occur in the event of water level rise. (Courtesy photo)

Jennifer Christensen (left) and Larry Morong (retired) survey a levee bank on the Missouri River checking for low spots (levee freeboard) to determine likely areas where overtopping might occur in the event of water level rise. (Courtesy photo)

Flowing through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District’s area of responsibility, the Missouri River is the longest in the U.S. and its basin (watershed) covers more than 500 thousand square miles. The District’s hydrology section team plays a vital role in supporting this important civil works mission and helping to manage this precious natural resource. 

The District’s hydrologic engineering branch is robust and specializes in six areas of expertise: river and reservoir engineering, floodplain and flood risk management, hydraulics, hydrology, water control and water quality.

“I’m often involved in quite a few different things,” said Jennifer Christensen, hydrologic engineer, Omaha District. “My work varies and can include flood mitigation projects, dam design, dam safety, emergency response, rainfall-runoff modeling and statistical gauge analysis, among other things.”

This group of experts consisting of hydrologic engineers, a geographer, and a meteorologist, frequently assist with regional and national projects and emergencies as needed. In addition, when called on by USACE headquarters, members of this specialized team deploy overseas to lend their expertise to special projects. 

In the event of natural disasters such as torrential rains or hurricanes, members of the District’s hydrology section are often mobilized to assist in emergency operations. Duties can include levee and dam surveillance, emergency operations center (EOC) staffing, levee freeboard surveys, and assessments for FEMA blue roofs for hurricane response. 

“It’s nice to know that every time I come into the office, I serve the community in some way,” said Christensen. “By working on these projects, dam safety assessments, and being involved in emergency management operations when needed, I feel like I’m having a positive impact on communities. Also, it’s nice to know that my projects will sometimes be built if there is a federal interest.”

Hydrology, by definition, is the study of water over and below the landscape including its timing and volume. But within the scope of the District’s missions, it is so much more and depends on the other hydrologic engineering branch sections for mission success. The Missouri River, its lakes and tributaries are the source of drinking water for many communities, towns, and cities—members from the water quality section ensure it is clean and safe. Many of the lakes along the river that outdoor enthusiasts enjoy are managed by the District—members from the river and reservoir engineering team help ensure optimum lake and river channel depths; these are just a couple of examples. 

“Our group in a general sense, supports the hydro-meteorological needs of the District and that also expands to the nation and abroad due to our expertise,” said Joshua Melliger, chief, hydrology section. “Not every district has a specific hydrology section. We have some really good people here—our group of folks have been able to do more specialized studies.”

Melliger said that this collective talent has not gone unnoticed. Recently, USACE headquarters reached out to the Omaha team to do some post-storm analysis for their emergency operations center and his team has worked on testing and enhancing state of the art software from USACE’s Hydrologic Engineering Center (HEC). 

USACE dam projects are not just limited to the United States. Early in Melliger’s career with the Corps he worked remotely and traveled to Afghanistan to work on several USACE projects. 

“When I first started with the Corps, I worked for several years doing Afghanistan hydrology analysis, which included feasibility and design studies for an existing dam,” said Melliger. “I also worked on hydrologic assessments identifying potential new dams that could be used for irrigation in that country.” 

In the spring of 2019, a combination of coincident events, including torrential rains, warm temperatures causing rapid snowmelt and run-off, led to severe flooding across the Mid-West.

We learned important lessons from the 2019 event and others over the past ten years, Melliger said. When it comes to emergency management operations and flood response, one of the keys to success is collaboration and working closely with federal partners—that includes county and local officials and the people in affected communities, he added. 

Christensen said that a lot people haven’t even heard of hydrology outside of the technical fields. One thing she wants the public to know about this career field is that it is about a lot more than just building dams.

The District’s hydrologic and water resources management professionals provide a wide range of water resource engineering expertise including, watershed modeling, floodplain management, hydraulic structure design, environmental restoration, reservoir system management, among others. 

For additional information visit: https://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/Water-Information/

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