As climate change turns our weather on its head, any certainty around precipitation at a particular time of the year has gone down the drain, writes Patricia Moore. For those in the business of supplying water, managing wastewater or dealing with extreme weather-related events, this is creating challenges.
The demand for better information, faster, is growing and with that has come greater innovation in the area of water modelling, and analysis of built and natural systems across the whole water cycle.
Dan Stevens, Beca business director, water, says the fundamentals of hydraulic modelling have long been established. But advances in technology and computing power have exponentially changed expectations and the ability to collect, process and analyse, and present vast amounts of data, with powerful visual tools.
“The age of big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) is here,” he says, “and the water industry is striving to develop intelligent water networks which, in turn, are driving the advance of wastewater distribution modelling.”
DHI Group’s Rose Jowsey highlights innovations including greater processing power through the implementation of multiple cores of central processing units (CPUs).
“This enables software that can utilise graphical processing units (GPUs) allowing for a significant speed increase for engineers when running simulations,” she says. “Greater power not only allows more simulations to be run but also more detail per simulation.”
Rose says improved technologies and an appetite for more robust information are also leading to an increase in the accessibility to data.
“Databases are being developed with portals that allow for easy access as close to real time as possible and with a level of presentation not seen in the past.”
According to Ryan Brotchie, innovation is happening across the board. Ryan is GHD service line leader – integrated water management.
“The wastewater industry is moving from a one-size-fits-all regulatory or performance standard for sewerage system overflows, towards a risk-based or effects-based approach. For water suppliers, modelling technology is enabling utilities to develop real-time operational models of their water distribution systems. And new tools and approaches are being applied to stormwater systems to provide affordable city-scale, high-resolution, high-detail modelling and mapping.”
Spatial data and analysis are increasingly being used to support and communicate decision-making, says Ryan. “This provides a repeatable, transparent way to plan at multiple scales by enabling local characteristics to be considered across large geographic areas.”
An example is the Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) Opportunity Maps developed for Australia’s City of Port Phillip.
“The ‘hot spot’ maps provided council with optimal locations for investment in streetscape projects such as rain gardens that replaced previously ad hoc and opportunistic investment practices.”
Innovative techniques are the way of smart cities. Rose Jowsey notes the combination of expanding urban landscapes and a changing climate has resulted in many communities taking a closer look at their stormwater management policies and practices.
“In most cases replacing existing infrastructure is simply not feasible,” she says. “Alternative solutions – often referred to as green solutions – including rain gardens, green rooftops, rain barrels and porous pavement are being used to buffer the impacts of additional precipitation.”
Modelling is becoming more integrated, says Michael Chapman, principal and team leader water resources with Harrison Grierson. “Different scientific disciplines are learning ways to ‘join the dots’. We all know natural systems are connected but we often still work within our narrow silos. New software and modelling approaches are helping us understand the linkages.”
Along with new technologies, hardware advances and internet speeds, other factors are driving innovations in water modelling. Rose says these include policies such as the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management which calls for a better spatial understanding of water quality in catchments.
So how does this impact on local government?
Dan notes an increasing number of ‘engineer modellers’ in local authorities and consultant teams. “We’re seeing the evolution of a new generation of more tech-savvy system managers and operators, and as a result modelling is starting to migrate from the planning domain into the real-time operational environment.”
He suggests there may also be new players in the market as some significant software companies that have not traditionally been in the modelling space explore ways to create a single source of data that integrates modelling and geographic information system (GIS) databases and meets a range of needs.
“It will be interesting to see what develops in the next five to 10 years and what level of integration is actually possible.”
According to Ryan, innovations in modelling and analysis of natural and built water systems present an opportunity to improve operational efficiencies, optimise investment and enhance strategic planning processes.
“But, to leverage these opportunities people will need to keep up to date with the latest technologies and invest sufficiently in their spatial data and data management systems. These changes can also have implications on how planning and investment decisions are made.”
And, says Michael, authorities must be clear on what they expect from models and what they want to achieve.
“They need to be realistic about costs and ensure models are built properly and are fit for purpose. Because models are there to be used, not once but many times, keep it simple. Start with one or two issues. In this way they achieve their purpose.”
He cites the movement within the building industry towards creating flexible modular systems. “Keep things simple, then build in complexity as, and when, required, to understand the different components of a natural system.
“Regardless of the sector, a systems thinking approach drives innovation. Once people see linkages between systems, especially within the natural world, this will lead to advancement in modelling to assist us to understand them.
“From this we can make informed decisions and develop smarter solutions to ensure we keep moving towards a truly liveable environment that can regenerate and remain healthy.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.