5
Communicating Information on Hydrologic Hazards

The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) mission includes providing reliable, impartial, and timely information needed to understand the nation's water resources and related hydrologic hazards. The devastating consequences of extreme hydrologic events have caused some to call for the agency to expand its role from providing data for decision making to improving the understanding of hydrologic risk. Former Director Gordon Eaton observed that "USGS employees must make connections necessary to establish a new compact between the earth sciences in the society we serve. It is up to us, then, to ensure that our work is understood and applied" (Gordon Eaton, personal communication, benchmark letter of March 27, 1995, to all USGS employees). In response, the USGS mission statement encourages efforts that "actively promote the use" (Robert Hirsch, personal communication in briefing to committee 1997) of the information the agency generates.

For hydrologic hazards, "outreach" refers to activities through which USGS communicates information about the probability and consequences of natural hazards. Outreach efforts improve "customer service" and raise the general public's awareness of USGS expertise and activities having a critical and significant connection to their own lives. In operational terms the purpose of outreach is to effectively communicate to decision makers the nature, probability, and consequences of hydrologic hazards. With this understanding individual and institutional decision makers in the public and private sectors can make better-informed investment and regulatory decisions. Enhanced understanding of hydrologic hazards in the service of better decision making is one standard by which the success of the USGS's outreach efforts should be measured.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 49
--> 5 Communicating Information on Hydrologic Hazards The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) mission includes providing reliable, impartial, and timely information needed to understand the nation's water resources and related hydrologic hazards. The devastating consequences of extreme hydrologic events have caused some to call for the agency to expand its role from providing data for decision making to improving the understanding of hydrologic risk. Former Director Gordon Eaton observed that "USGS employees must make connections necessary to establish a new compact between the earth sciences in the society we serve. It is up to us, then, to ensure that our work is understood and applied" (Gordon Eaton, personal communication, benchmark letter of March 27, 1995, to all USGS employees). In response, the USGS mission statement encourages efforts that "actively promote the use" (Robert Hirsch, personal communication in briefing to committee 1997) of the information the agency generates. For hydrologic hazards, "outreach" refers to activities through which USGS communicates information about the probability and consequences of natural hazards. Outreach efforts improve "customer service" and raise the general public's awareness of USGS expertise and activities having a critical and significant connection to their own lives. In operational terms the purpose of outreach is to effectively communicate to decision makers the nature, probability, and consequences of hydrologic hazards. With this understanding individual and institutional decision makers in the public and private sectors can make better-informed investment and regulatory decisions. Enhanced understanding of hydrologic hazards in the service of better decision making is one standard by which the success of the USGS's outreach efforts should be measured.

OCR for page 49
--> Outreach Goals The USGS can focus its outreach program by continually measuring outreach requests against a carefully defined outreach mission: improving understanding of hydrologic hazards so that better investment and regulatory decisions can be made by private and public interests. This mission focus may direct the USGS away from general educational products toward ones that support decision making. Nonetheless, the USGS mission in outreach should not be to direct particular decisions about hydrologic hazard management (e.g., particular floodplain development patterns). Instead the agency should assure that decisions are made with the best possible understanding of the probabilities and consequences of hydrologic hazards. This focused outreach mission might better be described as helping decision makers avoid being "surprised." An informed decision maker who understands the probabilities and consequences of drought or flood hazards can make educated choices and will not be confronted with unanticipated outcomes when a drought or flood occurs. Similarly, relevant understanding of the physical processes and real-time risks associated with hydrologic hazards enables emergency managers to make informed decisions that minimize the threat to lives and property during hazardous events. Historical Development of USGS Outreach The role of the USGS in providing reliable and impartial information on hydrologic hazards has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, driven by a changing customer base and rapidly evolving information technologies. The primary customers for hydrologic data and related information in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century were the agencies and organizations responsible for developing the nation's water resources infrastructure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Bureau of Reclamation provided funding for the USGS to collect hydrologic data needed for the planning and design of all the major reservoirs and related flood control, navigation, water supply, and power generation facilities. State highway departments also provided funding through the Federal-State Cooperative Investigations Program to collect data and provide information on flood characteristics of small streams to support safe and economical design of bridges and culverts. The products that USGS provided during this period were the historical quality-controlled streamflow data and some analyses of data related to water supply risks, reservoir safe yields, and flood frequency determinations. The National Weather Service (NWS) installed instruments in many USGS stream gaging stations for transmitting river stage via landline to their forecast offices. USGS did not transmit real time data directly to any organization. During this period USGS's primary outreach activities were

OCR for page 49
--> Figure 5.1 USGS's mode of data collection and dissemination in 1970. the provision of reliable historical streamflow data and local interpretive information on historical hydrologic risks. The USGS role began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as streamflow monitoring expanded to support reservoir operations, water quality monitoring, and detailed flow monitoring associated with the allocation of limited resources, particularly in the western states. Much of this information was needed in real time to support decisions on water releases from reservoirs and withdrawals for municipal supplies, and to maintain ambient water quality within permit requirements. The USGS role began to expand during this period to include the provision of limited real-time data to agencies with specific real-time management needs. A schematic of the typical mode of data transfer to USGS's customers in 1970 is shown in Figure 5.1. Reliable historical streamflow data during this period were primarily provided in printed form, with provisional real-time data available to specialized users. Interpretive information on historical hydrologic risks became more widespread and standardized through USGS's flood studies and flood frequency analyses. In the 1980s and 1990s, the traditional customer base for USGS expanded significantly. Organizations providing new funding to maintain and operate the stream gaging program included city and county agencies that needed information for many different purposes, including flood hazard warning. Today, more than 800 agencies support the stream gaging program and at least two-thirds of them are local government agencies. This change in USGS customer base coincided with dramatic improvements in the quality and cost effectiveness of satellite and microprocessor technologies available for data management and dissemination. Instead of recording data on paper charts or punched paper tapes, USGS

OCR for page 49
--> Figure 5.2 State-of-the art mode of data collection and dissemination for USGS in 1998. began storing data on small storage modules, downloading data to field computers for automatic processing, and transmitting data from field sites via the GOES satellite network, as shown in Figure 5.2. The satellite capability enabled USGS to transmit, process, and disseminate both river stage and discharge data every few hours to its customers who needed the information for emergency warning and response functions. Examples of flood data being transmitted directly to customers include King County Emergency Services in Washington, the New Jersey State Police, and the Louisiana Department of Emergency Services. River stage data also became available to other customers, such as the NWS and USACE, with access to the GOES satellite information. Future USGS Outreach Continuing expansion of the USGS customer base, along with accelerating improvements in information technologies, can be expected to propel USGS's outreach efforts in hydrologic hazards in new directions. Growing demands for expanded hazard information can be expected to be driven by increasing activities to actively manage local risks associated with hydrologic hazards, expanding awareness of hydrologic hazards and their potential for catastrophic losses among the general public, and continued growth in properties and populations at risk from hydrologic hazards. In planning to support continuous improvement in hydrologic hazard outreach, the USGS must be able to match its unique scientific expertise and data management capabilities to the evolving needs of an expand-

OCR for page 49
--> ing user community. This challenge will require thoughtful coordination to balance competing demands for limited resources with the needs to demonstrate the value and cost effectiveness of outreach efforts. The evolution of traditional USGS outreach activities in response to new technologies and information needs can be expected to grow in three primary areas: (1) synthesis of USGS expertise in science and fundamental processes to characterize historical (or unconditional) hydrologic risks, (2) dissemination of provisional hydrologic data in real time, and (3) data and information support of emergency management and disaster response agencies. Hydrologic Hazards Outreach Historical Risk The USGS maintains unique capability to synthesize historical data with understanding of fundamental physical processes and geoscience, in order to characterize the historical risks of hydrologic hazards. In this context historical risk refers to unconditional risk information that is not dependent on current hydrologic conditions, such as observed river stages or reservoir levels. Examples of traditional USGS activities in characterizing historical risks include flood frequency analyses and floodplain mapping. The Survey also provides essential data collection and data dissemination functions to support the management of real-time or conditional risks. The analysis, communication, and management of real-time risks, such as real-time flood forecasting or flash flood warnings and evacuations, are primarily the responsibility of operational emergency management agencies, indispensably supported by real-time data provided by the USGS. The unique strength of the USGS hazards activities in geoscience process studies and modeling provides improved understanding of the likelihood and consequences of hydrologic phenomena. Process studies and models have been developed as contributions to basic science. The USGS publishes its research results in the professional literature and provides technical report to decision makers. This basic science can provide the foundation for additional creative outreach efforts, but these publications alone may not satisfy the broader emerging demands for decision-relevant risk information on hydrologic hazards. The evolving goals for successful hazards outreach include improved understanding by decision makers in addition to fundamental contributions to scientific understanding. Such understanding begins with basic science but also requires new approaches to effectively communicate that science. Scientific and technical papers alone may not be sufficient to adequately convey the emerging understanding of flood and drought phenomena to the USGS's broad audience of decision makers. The explosive growth in graphical and computational capability provides powerful tools to help decision makers better visualize the probabilities

OCR for page 49
--> and consequences of hydrologic hazards, in a context relevant to their specific decision problems. The committee sees rich, timely, and cost-effective interdivisional opportunities for the USGS to integrate resources in its mapping program with its interdisciplinary scientific expertise in fundamental process studies, modeling, and data collection, in order to substantially improve outreach activities that communicate the historical risks associated with hydrologic hazards. Real-Time Data Management Rapid growth in the use of the Internet has greatly expanded the USGS's potential audience and approach to disseminating hydrologic data. Potential USGS customers are no longer restricted to government agencies with operational or emergency management responsibilities; customers now may include individual property owners, recreational boaters and fishermen, and virtually any organization or individual with interests in current streamflow data. Use of the Internet for dissemination of both real-time and historical data has expanded rapidly. The USGS is currently providing real-time data on the Internet for more than 3,900 stream gaging stations, and this number will continue to grow. The agency is a national leader in the use of the Internet for these purposes. The USGS programs for data are impressive, and the agency should continue to expand these efforts. For the USGS, widespread dissemination of provisional data in real time is a relatively new and rapidly developing outreach product. Real-time data, in conjunction with historical risk information, create new opportunities for real-time hazard management. Real-Time Hazard Management Emergency response refers to the ability of individuals and local emergency management agencies to take actions that will minimize the adverse consequences of hydrologic hazards. One of the most common and widespread benefits of such actions is reduced loss of life and property damage through enhanced warning and coordination of evacuations. In more extreme circumstances decisions might be made to intentionally breach a levee or modify reservoir operations. The USGS should continually seek out opportunities for improved transfer of data and use of these data for emergency response by both individuals and governments. The USGS is the primary reliable source of real-time streamflow data to support flood forecasting by the National Weather Service and state and local emergency management agencies. Real-time access to provisional streamflow data is also available from a growing number of stream gages through the Internet. One of the challenges in exploiting the growth in data availability afforded by these new information technologies is to foster the simultaneous growth in decision makers' understanding of the information derived from these data. Despite

OCR for page 49
--> exponential growth in the use and availability of the Internet, it is essential to recognize that real-time data dissemination to support emergency response under life-threatening conditions requires a level of reliability and redundancy unavailable through the Internet. A second challenge in supporting real-time hazard management is to expand the real-time transmission of data via GOES satellite, VHF radio, telephone, and the Internet to establish reliable and redundant data dissemination avenues, including commercial radio and television. Reliable dissemination of hydrologic data to the broader public is a critical mission application that cannot be undertaken by USGS alone. In close collaboration with local emergency managers, the USGS experience in supporting the real-time gage network provides the foundation for broad-based cooperative hazard management. Improved public access to real-time data will be enhanced by closer relationships with radio and television media. Outreach for real-time hazard management will require close coordination by the USGS (as the provider of data), the local and regional emergency management agencies, and the news media. This evolving mode of real-time data distribution may require USGS's outreach efforts to include participation and leadership in training and preparedness exercises, in order to support and coordinate timely and accurate dissemination of critical real-time data during infrequent flood events. Simply making the data available in real-time will not result in their timely and effective dissemination. The expanding USGS role in these activities should be accompanied by programmatic monitoring and continuous evaluation in order to assess the value, effectiveness, and long-term success of outreach efforts supporting real-time hazard management. Support for Risk Communication Risk Perception Federal agencies involved in project construction, in establishing rules for selling insurance, and in the distribution of disaster aid for postflood reconstruction have difficulty communicating the nature of flood risks. These agencies, along with the USGS, have a sophisticated understanding of flood risk that may not be easily communicated to local decision makers. Conveying an understanding of the concept of a flood recurrence interval remains an elusive goal. The expression "100-year flood" was developed as a useful shorthand for professional communication. Yet as the term moved into popular use it became misunderstood and is commonly misinterpreted as a flood that will only occur once every 100 years. Suggestions have been made to replace the term with a percentage chance of occurrence (e.g., the 1 percent chance flood). Yet we know from the behavioral sciences that, as the likelihood of hazardous events decreases, individuals tend to truncate the perceived probability distribution, effectively acting as though a low-probability event has a

OCR for page 49
--> zero likelihood of occurrence (Slovic, 1977; Schoemaker and Kunruther, 1979; O'Grady and Shabman, 1994). One suggestion has been to communicate low probabilities in different terms; for example, an annual probability of a home being flooded instead might be presented as the chance of the home being flooded at least once during the period of a 20-year mortgage. Effective risk communication is a continuing challenge in hazards outreach. New nontraditional approaches to communicate probability concepts represent timely opportunities to improve risk communication in USGS outreach efforts for hydrologic hazards. Residual Risk In choosing the structural reliability of projects, as well as the degree of hazard reduction that is affordable, local interests and federal agencies need to fully appreciate the hydrologic hazard remaining after project construction. Nonstructural hazard reduction, such as the sale of flood insurance linked to delineation of the 100-year floodplain, similarly creates the impression of regions that are hazardous and complementary regions that are safe. Since these areas remain subject to flooding, there is a residual risk to any new development located in these areas. (This problem was highlighted in a recent report of the National Research Council on the American River Basin in California (NRC, 1995). Risk communication to improve decision making must therefore include the representation of residual risk. Alternate Means of Communicating Risks There are a number of opportunities for the USGS to pursue in the interest of communicating information about flood risk and consequences. USGS could tie together computer graphics and visualization capabilities (drawing upon geographic information system and mapping technology) with the agency's understanding of fundamental hydrology and its extensive databases. The objective would be to use the new technologies to visually simulate the sequence of flood events at particular locations as a way to communicate hazards at those locations. Such a tool would be of immediate use to local zoning officials, insurers, home-owners, and potential home purchasers as well as those responsible for making public investments in flood control works. USGS activities integrating digital mapping and hydraulic modeling for floodplain analysis are readily presented in such a visual form. The various consequences of levee building can provide a good illustration of how such a tool might be used. In rivers not bounded by levees the effects of overbank flow diminish with distance. In locations where levees protect the floodplain, if flows overtop the levee there is a discontinuity in the relationship between flood flow and stage and its impact on floodplain structures and inhabitants. If a levee fails, the sudden rush of water may inundate structures by many

OCR for page 49
--> feet of water and cause more damage than would have occurred if the levee had not been constructed; a levee failure is akin to a flash flood. Efforts to convey the consequences of these different situations are typically made in tables of numerical values. For example, lives at risk might be estimated or the monetary value of the potentially inundated property might be listed. However, such tables of data may not adequately convey flood consequences or the character of the area that would be inundated. Floodplains surrounded by rivers and having a bowl shape present a different hazard than land that slopes up as one moves away from a river. How deep would be the water be? How much warning would there be? Could people escape? It is important to tailor assessments of risk to the specific features of a watershed or floodplain. One way to add diversity to descriptions of flood risk is to have decision makers create realistic scenarios. The cooperative building of scenarios can be an excellent way to communicate flood risk. For example, the following scenario was suggested by the NRC as a possible description of the vulnerability of the Sacramento and Natomas, California, areas for storm events that overtop the levee system in the Flood Risk in the American River Basin (NRC, 1995): Should levees protecting Sacramento south of the American River be threatened, residents could attempt to move to higher ground to the south and west farther away from the river, and the depth of flooding would generally not exceed that at the river's edge; few areas would experience flooding of more than 10 feet. Natomas, on the other hand, is ringed by levees so that residents trying to leave the area would have to find their way across the main highway system to areas with higher ground that are primarily to the west. Moreover, because Natomas is in a depression, a third of the area would flood to over 10 feet and some to as much as 35 feet in depth. If the Natomas area is subject to a I in 100 chance of being flooded in any year, then the probability of at least one flood in 50 years is 40 percent. Therefore, the probability of a relatively catastrophic event within the lifetime of most residents is roughly equal to the probability of flipping a fair coin and getting heads. Modern computer graphics could provide dramatic simulations depicting in time-lapse sequences a visual image of the area and the inundation flows. The results of different levee scenarios could then be developed and represented. Key Outreach Elements Successful outreach for hydrologic hazards must begin by identifying the audiences for outreach. The growing diversity of audiences for hazards outreach will require the USGS to carefully match the demands for hazards information to both the specific nature of the hydrologic risks and the expertise the agency has to offer. In crafting this thoughtful structure, outreach efforts will also need to balance competing demands for the limited available personnel, graphics, publi-

OCR for page 49
--> cations, and other interpretive resources. To meet these challenges, outreach efforts need to be well conceived, identifying clear goals as well as unambiguous performance measures that will support the evaluation of outreach effectiveness. Within this delicate balance a broad spectrum of creative and innovative outreach programs can be cultivated. Outreach at Cascade Volcanoes Observatory USGS research at the Cascades Volcanoes Observatory (CVO) is intimately linked to the hazards associated with volcanic eruptions and the resulting risks to populations living nearby. The principal risk to the inhabitants of these regions is posed by lahars or volcanic mud flows that travel tens of kilometers from their sources and inundate everything within their paths. Yet, as the Pacific Northwest grows, development and population expansion persist in areas previously inundated by mud and debris flows. For instance, the area buried by past lahars from Mount Rainier now supports approximately 100,000 people. The outreach activity at CVO was promoted, in part, by a growing awareness at the state level that natural hazards assessments were needed for high-growth-rate counties. Moreover, from 1986 to 1993, there were 23 glacial outburst floods in Mount Rainier National Park, and during one summer 20 cars were trapped by such an event. The high public awareness of hydrologic hazards defined a broad audience for outreach. This audience included educators, emergency managers, and coordinators with electronic and print media. Most of the products produced for this outreach effort are targeted to educators, students, and the general public and include educational materials, fact sheets, and exhibits. The project is conducted in cooperation with scientific staff from USGS and other regional agencies and research institutions, as well as illustrators and reports staff members at the USGS. While the demands for hazard information at CVO were substantial and broadly based, the nature of the hazard required an unusual combination of expertise that was uniquely found within the USGS. Moreover, the specialized nature of the hazard provided few familiar analogs, and therefore required significant new tools and widespread efforts to effectively communicate hazard information. These characteristics led to an unusually vigorous and sustained outreach effort. This effort matched USGS expertise to broad demands for hazard information about historical risks, from an unusually diverse outreach audience. Outreach in Louisiana Flood Warning With 20 percent of all flood insurance claims and over $200 million spent annually in flood damages, Louisiana leads the nation in property damage caused by floods. The principal cause of flooding along the Amite and Comite rivers and their tributaries is backwater flooding. To alleviate and help reduce future losses,

OCR for page 49
--> the USGS, in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness, East Baton Rouge Parish, Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District, National Weather Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, operates a real-time flood monitoring and flood warning system in the Amite River Basin. The network uses satellite, VHF radio, and modern telemetry to relay data to the USGS and on to cooperators, the media, and the general public via facsimiles, the Internet, and recorded voice messages. In contrast to outreach at the Cascade Volcanoes Observatory, the scientific expertise in the hydrology and hydraulics of Mississippi River flooding is not confined to the USGS. Many agencies with technical and operational expertise in disaster management, flood forecasting and operation, and emergency response participate in this collaborative endeavor in real-time hazard management. The common need among these participants is reliable real-time data. This need is well served by USGS expertise in river discharge measurement and the collection, management, and dissemination of hydrologic data, particularly under severe flooding conditions. The primary audience for this real-time data is the diverse community of public-sector management agencies with shared responsibility for risk interpretation and communication to the general public. The USGS has also served as the focus for a complementary initiative to provide interpretive information to the general public in the form of a regional flood tracking chart. Developed on a map of the basin, the chart graphically depicts the five highest historical flood stages at each of the NWS forecast points in the basin. Used in conjunction with knowledge of historical flood limits and river forecasts disseminated by the NWS, this tool provides a simple method to help individuals interpret the consequences of forecasts and estimate the risks of flooding in the vicinity of gaged locations. This effort matched USGS expertise in river gaging and hydrologic data management to the needs of regional emergency management agencies. Regional cooperative efforts allowed this expertise to be leveraged with the institutional forecasting and response infrastructure already in place. The critical nature of real-time data for decision making was served through the creative development of redundant channels for data dissemination, including the range of data transmission technologies and the popular media. This targeted well-defined data dissemination role was complemented by the joint development of an informational tool, targeted to a much wider nonspecialized audience, in the form of a regional flood tracking chart. Balancing Research and Outreach In both of these examples the information demands from the outreach audiences were matched to the unique expertise found within the USGS. Outreach efforts were effectively allocated between scientific, interpretive, and technical

OCR for page 49
--> staff to address clear, well-defined, project-specific goals. These examples illustrate the value of targeted well-conceived outreach efforts to support the provision of reliable, impartial, and timely information needed to understand the nation's water resources and related hydrologic hazards. The relevance of USGS hazards research will continue to intersect a growing audience for hazard information. Upon identifying audiences for its outreach program, the USGS may find itself receiving more requests for outreach products than it can readily provide. This is an expected outcome of a program that has high quality but does not charge for its services. The potential demand for data, analysis, interpretation, and direct educational support could easily exceed agency resources. Thus, the USGS mission in outreach should not be to direct particular decisions about hydrologic hazard management (e.g., particular floodplain development patterns or water conservation plans to address drought). Rather, USGS must focus on scientific principles in support of sound policies—not particular project specifications or management decisions. The agency's growing challenge will be to continually refine the balance between the expanding demands from outreach clients and the essential need to maintain its uniquely credible role as the nation's principal source of impartial expertise in geoscience information. The resource demands to support hazards outreach may also require a reevaluation of the allocation of effort between research, technical, and interpretive personnel within USGS. Coordination between the National Research Program and the district staffs direct customer contact will benefit from consistent incorporation of outreach efforts in project formulation, planning, and budgeting. The highly interdisciplinary nature of hydrologic hazards research and risk communication will require close integration of the divisional expertise that has evolved within the USGS, approaching outreach efforts as a single thread woven through the fabric of research and interpretive studies in hydrologic hazards. This creative balance will require USGS to continually evaluate the most appropriate means to match its expertise to the needs of the expanding audiences for hydrologic hazards information. Although the agency has unique expertise in the earth sciences, expertise in outreach and risk communication has evolved within diverse organizations across many disciplines. USGS should consider a benchmarking process to cull the best of lessons learned from organizations performing outreach and communications activities. The encouragement of innovative approaches for outreach should be accompanied by thoughtful identification and evaluation of measures of success reflecting the balance between agency expertise, resources and priorities, and the diverse and specialized needs of the target audiences. Conclusions Previous reports by this committee have recommended that the USGS expand its educational efforts, but those calls have primarily been to encourage

OCR for page 49
--> greater involvement in the education of earth and environmental scientists and increased research collaboration with universities and other institutes. These recommendations stemmed from the concern that, in order for the USGS to continue to pursue its data analysis and research mission, the agency needs to make certain that there is a cadre of professionals educated appropriately from which to recruit. In general, this report urges the USGS to take a broader view of education. Within the context of hydrologic hazards, the committee encourages the agency to establish outreach connections beyond its intellectual community to the general public in an effort to actively engage the support of informed decision making in the protection of life and property. The role of the USGS has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. A number of factors, such as modified funding allocations within the federal government and the agency itself and the changing nature of environmental problems, have contributed to this transition. One outcome is that the USGS now has a very different set of partners and customers than in previous times. The other major factor that has stimulated many changes in the agency is the revolution in information technologies and the wide use of the Internet. Where a primary occupation of USGS had been to collect, analyze, and disseminate hydrologic data to other government agencies, researchers, and design engineers, now USGS has the capability to transmit real-time data to emergency managers and local citizens. In recent years, then, the emphasis of the agency's mission to provide the nation with reliable and impartial information about the earth, to minimize the loss of lives and property from natural disasters, to manage resources, to protect ecological and human life, and to contribute to wise economic and physical development has shifted from a more passive study and analysis role to one that actively seeks to convey reliable and impartial information to interested parties in a way that is responsive to social, political, and economic needs. There are numerous ways to define the agency's outreach activities that would meet this broad objective, but a simple way to characterize the committee's recommendation as to what the outreach role of the USGS should be is that outreach efforts should help decision makers and the general population avoid being surprised. The contrasts between the two examples of successful and responsive outreach programs reviewed in the Louisiana HydroWatch program and the Cascade Volcano Outreach Project illustrate the essential elements common to effective outreach. In both regions, communities were faced with real and potential hydrologic hazards, posing significant threats to life and property. In both cases, USGS was in the position to target its expertise and effectively allocate resources to provide the reliable impartial information crucial for public education, regional planning, and emergency response. The outreach products developed in each study represented a thoughtful balance between the needs of the outreach audience, the unique expertise of the Survey, and the inevitable competition for limited resources (both within USGS and among cooperating agencies and stakeholders). The Survey's scientific and technical expertise is unique in the Cascades

OCR for page 49
--> Volcano example, resulting in a vigorous and sustained outreach effort by USGS. In contrast, the Louisiana HydroWatch is a prime example illustrating the value and opportunities to substantially enhance outreach and hazard communication by closely coordinating USGS expertise with the complementary strengths and capabilities of both federal resource agencies like the National Weather Service and the Corps of Engineers, and local and regional resource management and emergency response agencies. These two outreach programs are not special cases: rather they are examples of effective outreach efforts, well matched to the audience, information needs, and resources, that have been effected through nontraditional activities. Both examples illustrate outreach programs that (1) identified the audiences for hazard outreach and their respective needs; (2) targeted unique scientific and technical expertise within USGS to those needs; and (3) effectively balanced the competing demands for outreach with the limited resources and complementary capability of both federal and nonfederal cooperating agencies. Overall, successful outreach in the area of hydrologic hazards requires methods to help decision makers better visualize the probabilities and consequences of hazards locally. The USGS can take the lead in improving hydrologic hazard understanding through improved visualization approaches that integrate expertise existing in the various divisions of the agency in long-term monitoring, mapping, and process modeling. The flood tracking charts are a good example of how the general community can use real-time data and flood predictions to make decisions regarding safety. In addition to the Internet, real-time data need to be disseminated along other available avenues. There is a critical need for improved methods of risk communication. Most people do not understand simple concepts of probability. Consequently, there is a general misconception as to what the 100-year floodplain designates and concepts of drought are even more difficult. It would be highly useful to explain flood risk by creating various scenarios that explain consequences in terms of a given set of conditions or ''what ifs.'' These scenarios might be very effectively illustrated by graphical computer simulations or animations. As the USGS explores approaches to better communicate hydrologic risk, a useful reference to consult would be the 1989 NRC report Improving Risk Communication (NRC, 1989). While outreach is an important new direction for the USGS, the agency should understand that outreach efforts must be a logical and comfortable extension of its strengths in data collection and interpretation. If the USGS views outreach as a completely new agency mission, it will detract resources from its core programs. Outreach should require marginal adjustments in programs and budgets, consistent with the core science programs of the agency. In developing its outreach program the USGS must identify and target the audiences it wishes to serve and define outreach products that draw from existing strengths of the agency. Throughout this process the USGS should be assessing and refining the quality and utility of its outreach programs.