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Forecasting floods, protecting our future

Submitted by Phillip Mutulu (Calgary, AB)

On April 10, I attended the Water Tech conference in Banff, where many organizations gathered to share their insights related to floods: damage prevention, data collection, recovery programmes, emergency response and much more. I was honoured to be asked to make a presentation on “Flood Forecasting During Major Flood Events,” a proactive topic on which Stantec is a trailblazer. For me, though, it’s not about attention or even my company’s business. It’s really about doing what we can to protect people from flood damage to their homes and our infrastructure, and we can leverage our experience to make a big impact there.

To build on this, my colleagues and I have been working on what our industry can do to improve flood forecasting. We are currently involved in several flood-related projects, including one to study how flood forecasting is done in other parts of the world to see where we can apply some of those principles here at home.

I have somehow managed to be right in the line of fire when it comes to floods, including being in Manitoba for their unprecedented flood in 2011, and again right here in Alberta in 2013. What I’ve learned is that forecasting floods is incredibly complex, and to be successful, many factors come into play:

  • An Understanding of What Causes Floods. One project we’re working on, an assessment of flood vulnerability, involves analysis and modelling to understand rainfall-runoff events in Alberta. The results of this analysis will greatly help the Provincial River Forecast Centre.
  • Data Acquisition Technologies and Data Storage. Your forecasting skills are only as good as your data – you can’t forecast a flood accurately unless you have good information, including climate, hydrologic, etc.
  • Methodologies for Flood Forecasting. The technologies used rely heavily on hydrologic models: mathematical representations of the behaviour of a watershed. Based upon the amount of rain, snow pack and soil moisture, we can determine how much water will flow across a given location.
  • Flood Warning Decision Support Systems. Alberta is working towards establishing one. It’s a system that brings together several flood-related components (e.g., models and database systems) that would assist in forecasting and mitigating floods.
  • Incorporating Climate Change. Climate change is likely going to increase the intensity and frequency of extreme events. It’s important for our province to think about the future and establish mitigation processes that protect the communities in the future.

With a continued focus on flood mitigation, including ongoing research and technology development, flood forecasting will be an invaluable tool for making the unknown known and ensuring our communities are prepared for future threats to their homes and their safety.

Phillip Mutulu is a senior hydrologist at Stantec and the former director of flood forecasting coordination and response for Manitoba. For more stories of rebuilding and recovery since last summer’s floods, visit The Alberta Floods.

It’s really about doing what we can to protect people from flood damage to their homes and our infrastructure.

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