Water Infrastructure and Real-Time Monitoring

By Suad Cisic, P.E., National Practice Lead – Water at Michael Baker International and Garrett Yager, P.E., Department Manager – Surface Water at Michael Baker International

Technology is a powerful tool. Not long ago, teams would need to monitor water infrastructure located in remote parts of the country by sending an in-person crew, sometimes even by helicopter, on a regular basis for physical inspection and data collection. This method had negative safety, time and budget implications. However, with the advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT) came a new opportunity: using real-time monitoring to guide actions, both based on certain event triggers or as the result of data trends. Advanced sensor technology and the evolution of broadband cellular networks to 4G/5G now allow us to collect massive amounts of data in real-time and quickly process that data. This enables teams to address issues or implement changes in a timely manner, whereas in the past, we needed to rely on a lower volume of less-specific data that was collected in-person.

To reap the benefits of real-time monitoring, some up-front field work and ongoing maintenance needs to be done. The necessary systems are composed of field hardware – which can include sensors, cameras data loggers and telemetry equipment – as well as software for data retrieval, web interfaces and smartphone applications. Once this infrastructure is in place, teams can access information 24/7 and be informed of the status of their sites at all times.   

Benefits and Challenges of Real-Time Monitoring

The primary – and most critical – benefit is safety. By using real-time monitoring to guide specific actions, we can limit the amount of site visits for monitoring applications that our teams have to do. Rather than physically going to these remote locations, environmental field monitoring can be done from the office, home or anywhere in the world geographically. An additional benefit of less frequent in-person monitoring is a reduction in the disturbance to the surrounding environment. 

Gathering data in real-time allows teams to receive more instantaneous feedback. In the past, we would have to send someone physically to site locations, but we can now create a highly customizable flow of information. With the possibility to capture an exponential amount of data, it is up to teams to identify the key data points associated with the specific location and project objectives. Once certain events happen, we can set these up to trigger an action, like alerting a site supervisor to assess and rectify the situation. 

With more data available, we can better identify patterns and predictions for the future. In the case of flood monitoring, the data collected can be tied into flood risk mapping and modeling. When a certain event, for example a specific water level, is achieved, automatic modeling can be triggered, leading to real-time risk assessments. 

Significant cost savings are also associated with this real-time monitoring infrastructure. By reducing or eliminating man-powered assessments, we see time benefit by reducing the hours it takes to gather information from a site. Of course, these sites will still need some in-person involvement when it comes to site maintenance and upgrades, but at a much lower frequency. 

While many benefits to real-time monitoring exist, there are also several challenges that teams must contend with. In remote settings specifically, power can be an issue as having that connection is necessary for gathering and transmitting data. In more urban settings, teams may encounter issues with vandalism and keeping installations discreet.  

Situational Applications

Real-time monitoring is already being deployed for a number of applications, including:

  • Real-Time Flood Monitoring (RTFM) Networks: These networks include sensors that transmit water data for a variety of services. They can increase situational awareness, give more immediate access to data, provide a substantial cost saving and reduce helicopter travel, which increases worker safety and decreases environmental disturbance. 
  • Water Quality Monitoring: A wide range of in-situ water quality parameters can be remotely monitored.  Real-time monitoring for pollutants or changes in water chemistry can be crucial for timely action.
  • Real-Time Pier Scour Monitoring: Maximum scour occurs during peak flow conditions, such as strong currents, intact channel ice and ice floes/ice jams. Pier scour monitoring can measure max scour during peak conditions, provide system alarms at critical scour elevations and facilitate ice measurements during peak conditions.
  • Water Source Lake Recharge: This application monitors allocated volumes of water based on fish habitat permits as lakes recharge from overland flooding and local snow melt. This provides year-round, real-time lake levels and alerts operations when their metered use has reset. 
  • Pipeline Crossing Monitoring: This monitoring provides instant notification of overbank flooding at pipeline crossings, along with photos, to designated compliance specialists. 

As technology continues to progress, real-time monitoring will continue to expand in both remote and urban settings. 

Case Study: Real-Time Flood Monitoring in the Colville River Delta, Alaska

The Colville River is the largest arctic river in Alaska. Its 650 square-kilometer delta drains into the Beaufort Sea and is a large, complex system of distributary channels and lakes that is subject to extensive flooding during the annual spring thaw, known as spring breakup. Annual spring breakup flood monitoring has been an integral part of safe oil and gas development in the Colville River Delta for 25 years and hydrologic monitoring is essential for the design of oil and gas infrastructure and operation preparedness at existing facilities.

The Michael Baker International team identified the Colville River Delta as an exceptional candidate for RTFM, providing instantaneous flood information to hydrologists and oil and gas operations managers. The team developed a system to reduce helicopter activity and decrease the lag time for data distribution. The system is comprised of a network of water level sensors, pier scour systems, cameras and telemetry equipment. Data is collected by onsite dataloggers, which transmit the data to a host computer. Information and data can then be accessed through a project website by field crews, senior hydrology advisors and operations management for prompt and well-informed decision making. System alarms trigger emails and text messages to activate a response plan when stage or pier scour exceeds set levels at specific locations. Remote cameras are used to monitor ice jam formations and releases and allow hydrologists to remotely collect measurements for correcting water level sensor data. 

After the first year of implementation, this RTFM resulted in an immediate reduction in helicopter takeoffs and landings, allowed operations managers to continuously monitor stages at critical locations and helped hydrologists effectively deploy field resources in response to peak flood conditions.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the conversation around remote work. In reality, the value of being able to access information anywhere, anytime, has been recognized by water infrastructure professionals. As technology continues to advance, applications for remote monitoring will expand and we can continue to ensure safer water infrastructure and more nimble responses to issues.