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Controlling water levels through the internet? U-M students work on Smart Stormwater Systems

Posted at 4:04 PM, Oct 25, 2021

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


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.
“On any given storm it can do a different thing, which is not how we’ve done things typically,” said University of Michigan Associate Professor Branko Kerkez.

Kerkez and a team of engineering Ph.D. students from the College of Engineering have been working on something called Autonomous or “Smart” Stormwater Systems.

Inside Ann Arbor’s County Farm Park, Kerkez and his students have been studying a pilot site and others since 2015. The site is a “controlled” wetland, where they installed a water level sensor and other technology that allows them to control the water levels during a storm.

“We have a valve that’s connected to the internet. Then we’re looking at those levels in real-time along with weather forecasts, and essentially trying to figure out when to hold water and when to release water,” said Kerkez.

So what looks like a natural wetland is actually being monitored and controlled online to save nearby communities from flooding.

“If it’s raining a lot in one part of town, we may want to let water there go. And if it’s not raining a lot here – we may be able to say ok we have a lot of storage capacity, let’s hold that water and wait until the storm’s over to try to figure out how to benefit things downstream,” said Kerkez.

Kerkez also says with climate change increasing the frequency of flooding, cities, and counties can’t just keep building bigger sewers.

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

“I think we can just look outside and see that the way we’ve been managing stormwater isn’t working… between the changing climate and urban areas becoming more dense,” said Ph.D. student Brooke Mason.

Mason and Ph.D. student Travis Dantzer are now using these controlled wetland sites to study their impact on water quality.

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

In fact, Washtenaw County officials say that by having the water level gauges in the ponds, they’ve now learned that when they hold water back during a storm, sediments and pollutants drop out of the water before it’s later released.

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

Kerkez and his students say flooding affects every community, so we all have to work together to find solutions to fight climate change.

“Water does not respect political boundaries-- it goes where it goes. So when we’re thinking about a large system like this where the upstream neighbors are impacting what you see downstream, technologies like this could add a base level of information,” said Kerkez. “Then if people are comfortable with that level of information could we make recommendations about when to send water downstream.”

The University of Michigan engineers are now also using the water gauges to study water levels in rain gardens throughout Detroit to evaluate their impact on flooding. Kerkez said they’re teaming up with the Great Lakes Water Authority to study how real-time monitoring of their system can help everyone in the region.

"GLWA has engaged in a significant research project with Professor Kerkez and the University of Michigan regarding smart control of wastewater systems, in an effort keep as much wastewater in the sewers during a rain event and thus to assist in preventing basement backups and localized flooding," said John Norton Jr., PhD., GLWA's Director of Energy, Research & Innovation.