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Lawrence, Bill
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Lawrence, Bill

Monitoring river stage levels on the Southern Plains

National Weather Service hydrologist Bill Lawrence certainly knows the truth of a quote attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Lawrence is the hydrologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center in Tulsa, Okla. The center is responsible for providing timely and accurate hydrology forecasts in for a 208,000 square-mile area covering portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. In addition to communicating crucial information about river stage levels, Lawrence’s goal is to inform decision makers about how climate change may impact the availability of water in the future.

Why is your work important?

Our most important job at the Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center is to make accurate and timely river forecasts that help people protect life and property. In times of extreme rain, rivers rise above flood stage causing damage to property, as well as threatening life. Most threatening are fast responding flash floods that can become killers in minutes. We create guidance that helps Weather Forecasts Offices better predict flash floods. The guidance from our center is also important to the economic well-being of the country. Our forecasts help navigation interests along the Arkansas River make smart economic decisions on how to move commerce most efficiently. Our highly accurate estimates of rainfall are important to a wide range of customers from farmers and ranchers to department stores. Finally, we produce water supply forecasts that are critical for the increasing populations of the more arid western parts of our basin. Water is essential for life, and keeping track of it is more important than ever.

How do you help wider audiences to understand and appreciate NOAA science?

One of the best new ways to do this is through our Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center Facebook presence. Our website is more of a one-way street where we distributed information. However, with Facebook you can relay information, and get immediate feedback. We hope to establish a large group of followers on Facebook and will use that for education, especially with respect to hydrology and hydrometeorology.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I like working operational shifts, especially during times of flood. This is when our forecasts have the most impact with our users. It is especially rewarding to make a good flood forecast where you overrode what the hydrologic model showed because of your experience or a “gut” feeling. I also enjoy working on technical projects that show real results. Projects like the web-based zoomable precipitation analysis that has become a big hit with our users are especially gratifying.

Where do you do most of your work?

I work at the Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center in Tulsa, Okla., 95 percent of the time. We are co-located with the Tulsa Weather Forecast Office. With today’s technology it is possible to make forecasts remotely. Having said that, it is important to get out and meet with our users and learn how we could have provided better service and make sure we are fulfilling their needs.

What in your office could you not live without?

I could not do without real-time observations of river stage heights. These obviously are critical to making an accurate river stage forecast. Shrinking federal, state, and local budgets have put a severe strain on the ability to keep the current gages we rely on now, let alone add additional ones. This will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future. Doppler radar estimates of rainfall, along with automated rainfall reports and rainfall measurements made by people are also critical to our mission, and we could not do without them.

If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

It would be a tool that could measure the flow of any river or stream at any spot at any time. This would make forecasting much easier as we could easily route this water down to the next forecast point with much more certainty and quickly learn when our model’s estimate of water quantity was incorrect.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

I can remember back to my earliest days being fascinated with meteorology and everyday weather phenomena. In college, I took a number of oceanography courses that I found extremely interesting. My interest in hydrology came later once I was employed with the National Weather Service. My particular interest in hydrometeorology continues today by reading my rain gage every day.

How did you become interested in communicating about science?

Unfortunately, in the past few years, politics, misinformation and half-truths have damaged the reputation of science, especially with respect to meteorology and climatology. This has also bled into the field of hydrometeorology. I think it is extremely important to allow decision makers to hear how a changing climate could affect the availability of water in the future, and this has elevated my goal of promoting factual, scientific information.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for a young person exploring career options?

Leadership training and understanding will not only help with your career, but with your life in general. I would recommend The Servant by James C. Hunter.

What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?

Dealing with consistent budget uncertainties and variations, as well as the ever increasing threats of government shutdowns has been frustrating to say the least.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I very much enjoy traveling the globe, seeing and interacting with other cultures. I enjoy the outdoors. I am also an avid storm-chasing fan, usually going out at least once every spring.

What would you be doing if you were not working for NOAA?

I really enjoy programming computers. The process is like solving a puzzle. If I did not work for NOAA, I might be employed as a computer programmer.

Bill Lawrence earned his bachelor's degree in meteorology from Rutgers University. While majoring in meteorology, he also minored in oceanography and computer science. Lawrence began his National Weather Service career as a meteorologist intern at the forecast office in Little Rock, Ark., in 1986. He transferred to the Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center as a hydrologist in 1989 and moved to the Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center two years later. 

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