This article was originally published in A Smarter Planet by Dr. David Rudolph

We all live in watersheds; areas of land so defined because the water that falls within its boundaries, circulates through it and is influenced by how the land is managed and by the demands that are placed on it. They supply our drinking, agricultural and manufacturing water needs and sustain ecological systems. As regions swell through urban sprawl and population growth, our impact on watersheds increases.

Because of this, those who are responsible for ensuring the health and welfare of watersheds desperately need research and statistical data that enable them to accurately predict and manage watersheds in sustainable ways into the future. This is what drives my work through the University of Waterloo with the Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC) and IBM Canada.

Watersheds are complex. Traditionally, watershed research has been limited by the inability to store massive amounts of data collected from monitoring sites, merge information to evaluate trends, and capture sporadic events that could be crucial in understanding a watershed. The picture that emerges from sampling a nutrient like nitrogen in a stream, for example, can be vastly different if one looks at 5-minute intervals rather than every 3 hours. Managing the sampling frequency is a challenge.

Today, thanks to advances in both hardware and software, we are able to gather the information needed to analyze and interpret a watershed unlike ever before.

IBM Canada, as part of its Smarter Planet Initiative, has collaborated with SOWC to drive forward the development of water monitoring and management technologies through SOWC’s data integration platform. The platform, built on IBM’s Intelligent Operations for Water, captures detailed data from a network of monitoring stations throughout the watershed providing insights that allow us to develop strategies for municipalities and other agencies to address watershed management issues into the future.

Within the Alder Creek sub-watershed of the Grand River in Waterloo Region, SOWC has installed seven complete weather stations and a total of 120 surface and subsurface hydrologic sensors; they collect and transmit over 150 data points every 15 minutes through wireless telemetry to a central recording location that stores the streams of data produced. From this reservoir of information, access to sophisticated IBM software gives us the ability to merge data sets together and interpret them in unprecedented ways.

Through the data integration platform, information communicated by the sensors can be interpreted in real time, allowing automatic responses to environmental events, or ‘triggers’. This improves on traditional passive monitoring which can miss important changes due to intense, short-lived environmental events. The system will automatically alert users to the onset of an event such as a heavy downpour in one area of the watershed. This allows sensors elsewhere in the network to be triggered to increase the rate at which they collect data.

It sets the stage for development of truly ‘smart’ sensor technology. This new technology, currently being piloted, will advance a further shift from traditional static sensor recording. It will move from automated alerts and triggers towards responsive networks where sensors ‘talk’ to each other across the watershed, sending a signal directly to other network devices to increase their sampling frequency to capture that environmental event.

Through the ability to gather all of this new information and analyze the data like never before, public and private users are provided with the facts and evidence they need to make more-informed decisions in water management plans for urban centers and municipalities. This is an exciting game-charger for everyone locally, nationally and globally who are responsible for understanding watersheds.

We live, play and work in watershed environments – all using water in different ways, and ultimately impacting the watersheds that flow through our communities. Their health is central to these ecosystems we depend on. Through this project, we strive to ensure stakeholders have the tools to gain insights today that are invaluable for the management of watersheds into the future.