The Internet of Water

By Sara S. Moore

At the recent Great Lakes Adaptation Forum held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Oct. 5-7, 2016, I heard about an exciting new approach to managing stormwater runoff using remote sensing technology, called the “internet of water,” or “intelligent stormwater grids.” The presentation was about how data-gathering gadgets were installed this past summer around the catchment area of a pond in Ann Arbor by members of the University of Michigan’s Real Time Water Systems Lab, led by engineer Branko Kerkez. I believe I was the only current California resident in the room, so I might have been alone in having a lightbulb go on over my head as I listened to the description of the installations, anticipating Kerkez bringing up the possible applications of this technology for capturing the Los Angeles River runoff that infamously goes straight into the ocean. That water could, if captured and treated, provide the city with all the water it needs, relieving demand on Northern California’s water resources, which depend largely on meltwater from the Sierra snowpack, which is expected to disappear with climate change. It turns out Kerkez previously helped develop real-time remote monitoring of Sierra snowmelt as part of a UC Berkeley research team. California’s drought appears to be one of the initial inspirations for his remote sensing experiments (read more about his earlier work in California here).

This short video from Aug. 5, 2016 (below), describes how the internet of water as developed by Kerkez’s lab might help Los Angeles. With the real-time water management technology, “you can strategically hold back certain portions of [runoff] water and potentially even reuse it,” says Kerkez in the video. By making aging infrastructure responsive to an influx of stormwater you could not only harness the water for other uses but possibly avert a flood by moving water to a less inundated neighborhood.

On Oct. 1, 2016, California officially entered its sixth year of drought. The Sacramento Bee reported on Sept. 30, that forecasters are predicting “it’s going to take a long time before anyone declares California’s drought over.” Southern California is looking like it will continue to be particularly dry.

Some LA River stormwater runoff is already being captured and used to recharge groundwater, but the LA Department of Water and Power is looking to step up those efforts significantly and introduce direct reuse of runoff with a Stormwater Capture Master Plan, now in its third year of development. Read a PowerPoint from the Plan’s final public hearing in June 2015 describing its scope and ambitions. What the internet of water offers will not revolutionize this project, but it could make the project much more effective.

The goal of the Ann Arbor pilot presently is to demonstrate real-time adaptive management for stormwater. The remote sensing instruments deliver to the internet measurements of the flow in open channels, soil moisture, rainfall, and water quality. Microcontrollers and wireless communication detect and transmit the information at a one-minute resolution. For the demonstration project, ten devices were deployed within a three-square-mile catchment called Ellsworth Pond, selected because the county allowed the team access to it. At this stage, the technology is relatively inexpensive, using data analysis algorithms and hardware platforms custom-made in Kerkez’s lab.

The installation of a sensor at Ellsworth Pond. © 2016 Real Time Water Systems Lab

The installation of a sensor at Ellsworth Pond. © 2016 Real Time Water Systems Lab

Some of the barriers to using these devices for management that were discussed at the GLAF presentation are the challenges of identifying and reducing errors in the data, and vandalism of the instruments. So far the lab has not had to deal with the latter problem, but it may arise as more instruments are installed in more densely populated areas. Also, a May 2016 article in Environmental Science and Technology (Kerkez et al.) states that the research on how to create a smarter stormwater system is not limited by technology, but “rather by a much more fundamental need to understand the complex spatiotemporal dynamics that govern water flow and quality across large urban areas.”

Before moving on to helping solve Los Angeles’ stormwater runoff problems, these water management gadgets will be piloted further in Ann Arbor, Toledo, Milwaukee, and Fort Worth-Dallas, using real-time data from the water system to paint a better picture of how stormwater behaves and how we might use it more wisely.

Learn more about the smarter stormwater management pilot projects by the University of Michigan’s Real Time Water Systems Lab:

About the Author: Sara S. Moore is a climate change adaptation researcher based in Oakland, California. She worked on the Sonoma County Adaptation Strategy (2015) as part of its Climate Action 2020 plan. She wrote a white paper on the Marin case study in scenario planning for the California Climate Vulnerability Assessment (Moore, Zavaleta, Shaw, 2012) and a guidance on implementing scenario planning for natural resource managers for the California Coastal Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science (Moore, Seavy, Gerhart, 2013). She holds a Master of Public Policy degree and an MA in International and Area Studies from UC Berkeley.