/ Articles / Thoughts From Engineers: Smart Tech Steps into the Spot (Flood) Light

Thoughts From Engineers: Smart Tech Steps into the Spot (Flood) Light

Chris Maeder on May 5, 2023 - in Articles, Column

Any homeowner who has taken advantage of the myriad doorbell cameras, home thermostats, motion sensors and other smart devices available in the market knows the value smart tech brings to home security. (“I can’t be everywhere at once,” the thinking goes, “but thankfully my tech can.”) And so we shell out more money to have an electronic foot soldier onguard at our home’s doors, windows and anywhere else we feel a twinge of vulnerability. But smart tech can clearly do more.

In the last decade, smart tech rapidly infiltrated other industries and urban spaces, spawning a wave of applications—some operational, others experimental—that serve the public’s interest in important ways. From Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled sensors located strategically throughout watersheds to wireless systems poised to release water from wetlands or other holding areas to open up storage for predicted floodwater, innovation is ramping up—and obviously none too soon. This column looks at a few smart trends in flood management.

Watershed Monitoring in Real-Time

It’s interesting to see the evolution of thinking among city planners, engineers and other professionals as we migrate from a world view focused almost exclusively on gray infrastructure to one shifting to embrace a combination of tools—tried-and-true hard infrastructure, of course, but also green infrastructure and smart analytics—to tackle a variety of issues. Clearly, digital technologies are evolving as well. Although municipalities have been using digitized data for some time, decision-makers often were disadvantaged by a “siloed” mindset. Data were interpreted independently of other data and were, therefore, of limited use. Such decision-making is beginning to change as the “integrated data platform” takes center stage.

The Town of Carey, N.C., for example, was quick to leverage IoT and digital technologies to manage in real time and lend predictive insight to the region’s watershed, particularly during storm events. It took the collaboration of multiple departments, buy-in from the community, and focused communications with smart systems providers to get the Town of Carey’s Walnut Creek Watershed system up and running. Solar-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled sensors collect and transmit a variety of core water metrics in real-time to the cloud, which—combined with real-time rain-gage data and Microsoft Azure Maps Weather forecasts—yield a rich profile of current and future storm conditions throughout the watershed. These data are delivered to a central location via an interactive Visual Analytics dashboard analyzed by Carey’s stormwater department.

In combination with the analytics of Event Stream Processing by SAS, the town can evaluate what’s happening on the ground in real time, predict where floodwaters are heading, send out alerts and warnings, and take action if necessary. Statistical algorithms applied to the data—along with the predictive analytics of machine learning—allow the town to take advantage of runoff patterns from previous storm events to plan for future ones. Positioned upstream of other communities in the watershed, the town successfully implemented an “intelligent watershed,” the analytics of which the town exploits for its own purposes and shares with municipalities further downstream.

Across the globe, a variety of smart-city scenarios are unfolding, with cities whose digital setup is designed to be adaptive and ready to incorporate additional layers of data as they become available. The city of Lillestrom in Norway, for example, not only monitors and tracks all metrics relevant to the city’s wastewater operations, but also has a complex network of upstream river sensors for stormwater monitoring purposes. The city also shares information on water temperature and other parameters—via a citizen portal—for popular recreational spots in the event a resident is suddenly keen for an afternoon swim. The city of Nasushiobara in Japan uses a mesh network for LED lighting, which then also serves as a platform to subsequently layer on additional sensors to monitor a variety of environmental parameters.

A System of Gates, Pumps and Sensors

Bringing together green infrastructure with IoT technologies for large-scale flood management is in an experimental phase, but the potential is obvious. The massive flooding that hit the Houston metropolitan area just a few years ago triggered a variety of initiatives—from land buyouts to other city-planning efforts—to prevent a repeat disaster.

The Wise Research Group at Florida International University is experimenting with a smart system to manage water storage in two watersheds within the Harris County Flood Control District in Houston: The Cypress Creek and San Jacinto Galveston Bay Watersheds. Through a series of interconnected wetlands, ponds and reservoirs with an integrated system of sensors that enable remote communication with thousands of electronic gates, operators can utilize a decision support system to implement near-real-time release of water from natural and man-made basins well ahead of forecasted rain events. Informed by results from hydrologic modeling, the platform allows remote interfacing with electronic gates positioned throughout a system of interconnected wetlands.

More to Come from Smart Systems

Clean water advocates for the Great Lakes region give credit to smart sewer management for a major decrease in the number of combined sewer overflow incidents. Smart sensors monitor incoming stormwater using real-time data feeds, enabling operators to change where sewage is routed before the sewer-system capacity is reached.

These cases illustrate that the age of leveraging smart analytics to manage flooding and stormwater more effectively is here. Communities are poised to benefit as word spreads about these techniques and technologies that work, and more municipalities will step forward to “get their feet wet.” The future is full of unknowns, but the city that leverages smart analytics is arguably one step ahead of the pack. 


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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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