Canada has an abundance of freshwater. Our belief in this abundance is deeply embedded in our culture, so much so, that a recent survey shows that Canadians are not inclined to spend tax dollars on water. However, the evidence doesn’t justify our confidence.
Hydrology field work done today, if managed well, becomes part of a legacy of information that will serve for generations to come. As an avid canoeist and whitewater kayaker I was easily drawn into a career in hydrometry in spite of an undergraduate education in biology. Shortly after graduating from the University of Alaska I started work with the Water Survey of Canada in Whitehorse, Yukon. The initial appeal was the freedom to travel extensively to some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet to measure streamflow. The highlight of my career was measuring 7040 m3s-1 of flow on the Porcupine River using a small, under-powered, aluminum skiff, kevlar tagline and a 150 pound sounding weight. It took 4 tries to string the line, while uprooted trees and large ice floes came down the river. I am guilty of being a data philosopher. I think we have to first be able to clearly articulate what an ideal data set should look like and then we can influence the direction of technological development to make that ideal achievable.
There is a hidden cost behind the reliance on spreadsheets that is invisible to those who are dependent on them. Most people use spreadsheets for multiple purposes, so using spreadsheets to manage water data seems “free” relative to the cost of purpose-built software for data management. A National Public Radio Podcast about spreadsheets was recommended to me by colleagues at the CWRA conference in Lethbridge last week.
At Aquatic Informatics we are encouraged to take an active role in the community and so I was quick to agree when I was recently asked do a short course on hydrology for a conference on Global Stewardship at a local private school. It turned out to be a lot of fun, for me at least. I took a look on a map and realized that because the school is located at the crest of a hill and on the edge of a large forested park it provided an excellent opportunity to do a comparison and contrast between forest and urban hydrology.
Inattention and imperfect information costs individuals, organizations and society in immeasurable ways. The relatively new field of information economics (infonomics) is revealing that great efficiencies can be gained by managing information as a strategic asset. All business decisions are made with the information available at the time. Yet, this availability is often a result of desperate scraping of whatever data happens to be readily accessible in real-time resulting in sub-optimal business outcomes. The new insight emerging from the study of infonomics is that decisions can be materially improved by anticipating needs and nurturing the information required to meet those needs.
Ray Maynard calls me a peripatetic hydrologist. I had to look it up. There are two meanings: 1) a person who travels from place to place or 2) an Aristotelian philosopher. I think I fit both definitions. Aristotle placed great emphasis on direct observation of nature and that theory must follow fact. I also travel a lot. Whereas I can’t deny this label, I have to wonder if it was meant as a compliment. After all, hydrology is a place-based, observational, science. How can I be a real hydrologist if I am traveling all the time, and hence, not occupied with making direct observations at a place?
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has replaced its custom, in-house developed, Automated Data Processing System (ADAPS) originally designed in 1985 with the commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) AQUARIUS Time-Series software. The state of Alabama, of the USGS Lower Mississippi Water Science Center, has now officially retired the ADAPS system. This is the first in a scheduled deployment rollout of all 50 states. This is a big deal, not only for Aquatic Informatics and for the USGS, but for the world.
In the field of hydrometry there is benefit that arises from global collaboration. Few monitoring agencies have enough resources needed to invest in wide-ranging discovery of better ways for acquiring and producing streamflow data. However, it is feasible for local centres of expertise to develop that can advance any one of many opportunities for significant advancement in the business of water measurement and monitoring.
On my way home from the AWRA conference in Orlando I sat next to a fellow on his way home from the IAAPA Expo (International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions), which had taken place at the Orange County Conference Centre the same week. Even though he slept for most of the 7 hours we sat next to each other, I did learn a thing or two while he was awake. There were 35,000 people at the amusement park convention and the expo was so large that the distance to walk around all of the vendor booths was 9 miles! It is hard for me to grasp the scale and the meaning of this. There were, perhaps, 500 water professionals who could afford the time and money to come to the AWRA, a significant turnout for water professionals in North America.
The sessions and presentations at AWRA conference in Orlando Florida reinforced many observations I have been making about the water sector. Long gone are the days when the conference was dominated by the stereotype engineer with pocket protectors and a slide rule. There are no sessions on nuances of flood frequency analysis or the shear stress of rip rap. There is obviously still a need for water data for conventional engineering purposes but this need has been overwhelmed by a new reality. The application of water science is changing.
Stream hydrographers from all around Oceania gather for the biennial Australia Hydrographers Association Conference, which was held this year in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Water monitoring is a place-based activity meaning that hydrographers are widely dispersed all across the landscape with very little opportunity to interact, build community, share experiences, and develop best practices.
The most passionate people involved in the water monitoring industry all care deeply about the preservation of traceable provenance for their data. To people on the outside this can seem like an indulgence that adds a burden of work to the data management process with little apparent benefit. The benefit is ‘verifiable truth’, a distinction with little value. Until it matters!