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Monitoring River Levels Today: How Communities Use SCADA Systems for Early Flood Warning

SCADA river levels

There's a critical period of only 12 to 48 hours between the time a flood watch is issued before it becomes a widespread disaster and before flooding occurs. Preventing people and property from bearing the brunt of water's power is one of the chief duties of modern society.

Early flood warning is a way to save lives and save property, which is why more municipalities, states, and federal entities are investing in it. Increasingly, people are relying on SCADA systems to manage flood warnings, giving them a clear, real-time picture of what is happening upstream.

We can't control water. We can channel it and dam it, but ultimately, water will always win.

What we can do, though, is to use early flood warning systems for monitoring river levels giving ourselves more time to prepare. And that time can save lives.

Understanding SCADA for Monitoring River Levels

Up until not that long ago, the best way to predict a flood was to measure the rain and physically monitor the river or other bodies of water. You could see if it was threatening to flood, but it was more complicated than that.

After all, snowmelt 300 miles upstream could, weeks later, create a surge as different river systems and tributaries merges on their various downhill paths. Take Cairo, IL. Situated where Ohio rolls into the Mississippi, a few miles down from where the Missouri meets the Mississippi, it's at the mercy of enormous systems. It can be impacted by snowmelt in the Dakotas and rain in Pittsburgh.

So what SCADA does is replace or augment our normal models with real-time information. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. It's not a thing so much as it's a complex system of sensors and central monitors.

SCADA is comprised of two primary parts.

  1. Remote Telemetry Units (RTUs). RTUs with attached sensors. These are designed to monitor any number of discrete events, which we'll get to below. They are programmed to understand if something is happening that shouldn't happen.
  2. Master Stations. The masters are the brain receiving the messages from the RTUs, and then, using their programming to react. This could be to ask for more information, or it could be to send an alert to the right party.

The benefit of a SCADA system is that its reach is virtually limitless and the information it can gather is as well. That's of vital importance to anyone concerned with water management.

How SCADA Systems Help With Early Flood Warning

One of the most popular uses for SCADA is in water treatment plants. There, they monitor every input and output and can tell you when a storm is threatening to overrun their capacity. Automatically, the plant takes action based on incoming data.

Should some sewers be shunted into reservoirs? Should we divert water another way? There's a series of decisions, some related to public safety. Some are automated processes, some human, and others are based on collected data.

The same theory is at play with flood warnings, only with much larger systems. But it is all about information. These RTUs can be deployed to monitor any number of events and data, including:

  • Water or flood level
  • Water temperature
  • Turbidity
  • Conductivity
  • Humidity

These monitors are usually put on bridge piers or on specially-mounted posts at strategic points along the river for monitoring river levels. You might also need hurricane flood protection in bay areas. Using wireless telemetry, RTUs can transmit signals essentially instantaneously.

How SCADA is A Leap Ahead

Chances are, you already have a system in place, such as a tipping bucket rain gauge. When it gets too full, it tips over, triggering an alert that sends a signal. And that's really helpful! But what those aren't as good at is collecting information from different times over vast areas.

Humidity sensors can help you understand when it is going to rain upstream of areas that already have levels that are dangerously high.

The master station can check turbidity levels to see if the water is churning up based on those factors. It can help you understand the totality of the system.

And, most importantly, it can send alerts for monitoring river levels. It can help you understand when there needs to be a flood watch, flood warning, or flood statement, and issue it immediately. It can be programmed to alert municipal managers and/or first responders. Also, it provides solid information.

This information can help you with emergency response and for sandbagging the right areas for example. It can give you time to prepare and evacuate. It can give you a chance to make a plan, whether that is shoring up the levee or diverting water into a reservoir or having businesses leave town.

What a SCADA system gives you is time. It can't control the water, but it can give you the time to control your response. And that is worth money. It's worth property. It's worth peace of mind. And it's worth saving the lives of the people in your community.

DPS Telecom has the experience and expertise to help companies monitor for early flood warning. Our technicians can work with you to install RTUs with easy-to-use interfaces for more automatic responses. Reach out and get a quote today!

Image courtesy Shutterstock

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