Control the water level online?

(WXYZ) — As storms and floods continue to wreak havoc on our homes and highways, solutions are being desperately sought to manage the increase in water that comes with climate change.

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That’s why some local researchers have been studying how to control water levels remotely like we control some thermostats from our smartphones. The goal: to save communities from some of the effects of severe weather.
“It could do something different in any given storm, which isn’t the way we usually did things,” said University of Michigan associate professor Branko Kirkes.

Kerkez and the Ph.D. engineering team. College of Engineering students were working on something called autonomous or “smart” stormwater systems.

Inside an Ann Arbor County farm park, Kirkes and his students have been studying a demonstration site and others since 2015. The site is a “controlled” wetland, where they have installed a water level sensor and other technologies that allow them to control water levels during a storm.

“We have a valve that is connected to the internet. Then we look at these levels in real time along with the weather forecast, and we are basically trying to figure out when to hold water and when to release water,” Kerkes said.

So what appears to be a natural wetland is monitored and controlled online to save nearby communities from flooding.

“If it rains a lot in one part of town, we might want to leave the water there. And if it doesn’t rain a lot here — we might be able to say well, we have a lot of storage capacity, let’s conserve that water and wait until the storm is over to try and figure out how to use things in a direction downstream,” Kerkis said.

Kirkes also says that as climate change increases the frequency of floods, cities and counties cannot continue to build larger sewer systems.

“We don’t have enough money to build our way out of the problem,” Kerkes said.

“I think we can just look outside and see that the way we manage stormwater isn’t working…between the changing climate and urban areas getting denser,” said Ph.D. Student Brock Mason.

Mason and Ph.D. Student Travis Danzer is now using controlled wetland sites to study their impact on water quality.

“Study after study has shown that adding control, it improves flood benefits and water quality, but we’re trying to understand how much,” Mason said.

In fact, Washtenaw County officials say that by having water level gauges in the ponds, they have now learned that when they hold back water during a storm, sediment and pollutants seep out of the water before they are later released.

“Send water through wetlands, we can improve water quality, rather than just sending it through a pipe,” Mason said.

Kirkes and his students say floods affect every community, so we all need to work together to find solutions to combat climate change.

“Water doesn’t respect political boundaries — it goes where it goes. So when we think of a large system like this where upstream neighbors influence what you see downstream, technologies like this can add a fundamental level of information,” Kerkes said. “Then if people are comfortable with that level of information, we can make recommendations about when to send water downstream.”

University of Michigan engineers are now also using hydrometers to study water levels in rain gardens across Detroit to assess their impact on flooding. Kirkes said they are collaborating with the Great Lakes Water Authority to study how real-time monitoring of their system can help everyone in the area.

“GLWA has been involved in an important research project with Professor Kerkez and the University of Michigan regarding intelligent control of wastewater systems, in an effort to keep as much sewage in the sewer during rains and thus to help prevent basement backups and local flooding,” he said. John Norton Jr., Ph.D., Director of Energy, Research and Innovation at GLWA.