Your Voice, Your Opinions and the Future of Hydrometric Data Management

This blog forum is your opportunity to voice your opinions about what can, and should be, done now to build toward a desired future for hydrometric data and water resource decision-making. As a regular contributor I personally invite an interactive exchange of knowledge and promotion of ideas on how to advance the science and practice to hydrometry. With this blog forum, we can identify opportunities for improvement in all aspects of the job of measuring and monitoring the volume of freshwater to provide information needed to: protect the natural environment; keep people and infrastructure out of harm’s way; and ensure adequate supply for diverse and competing demands.

I believe that we should never lose sight of the fact that the right data, at the right place, at the right time, makes the world a better place. Decisions based on inadequate data can, at best, be lucky guesses. The more likely outcome is decisions that yield adverse, unanticipated, results. Field work done today, if managed well, becomes part of a legacy of information that will serve for generations to come. There are very few careers where the value of the work done accrues in value as time passes. Just as we routinely use data collected 100 years ago to understand and characterize the impacts of climate change, consider the value of today’s data to hydrologists 100 years from now. Nonetheless, the immediate priority for most monitoring programs is in supporting adaptive management decisions with real-time data.

Hydrometric monitoring is a highly specialized activity that falls somewhere between a science and a trade. Practitioners of hydrometry could be considered to be geophysicists or they could be considered to be surveyors – however, they are neither and yet they are both. A nascent group has been formed called the North American Stream Hydrographers (NASH) to advance the science of hydrometry and promote best practices. I am serving as an interim president of NASH until we can hold our first Annual General Meeting in St. John’s Newfoundland in June 2011. More information on NASH can be found at www.hydrographers.org.

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. I especially enjoyed the physical challenge of measurements under difficult conditions. I once estimated that I have drilled or chopped my way through over 2 kilometers of ice in the course of doing winter surveys. The spring freshet on large northern rivers brings its own challenges. 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. There were even caribou being carried past by the current as the attempted to cross on their annual migration.

I became increasingly intrigued by the collision of hydrology and hydraulics that occurs when ice forms in the winter. Fluctuations in stage can be driven as much, or more, by ice effects than by discharge. In an overly ambitious, naïve, attempt at solving the problem I undertook an investigation on winter streamflow as a M.Sc. thesis. Over the course of one Yukon winter I conducted 156 discharge measurements on four gauging stations. My investigation did not lead to a breakthrough in automated monitoring of winter streamflow; arguably, it simply raised even more questions that need interpretation by expert analysis of available information.

The next phase of my career was leading a small, talented, R&D team. One focus was on modeling. We developed a Canadian version of the HBV model, we call HBV-EC. We used this model for many studies on climate and land-use change. Another focus area was on the design and development of decision support systems. For example, we developed multi-scale, integrated models of the drinking water watersheds for Vancouver. Down-scaled climate models would drive forest stand models and non-point-source nutrient and sediment models which, in turn, would become the system state for a hydrological model which provided inputs to hydrodynamic models of the reservoirs, which would drive a water quality model. Amongst many other interesting projects, we also developed the first Canadian web site for real-time hydrometric data.

I eventually returned to Water Survey as Head of Operations Support. The duties of this position included: equipment acquisition; construction and maintenance of infrastructure; client relations; occupational safety and health; and hydrometric data management. One of my responsibilities with Water Survey was coordinating implementation of ISO 9001 protocols. It is based partly on consideration of this experience that I will write the next few blog posts on quality management of hydrometric data.

I am guilty of being a data philosopher. Many of my ideas are challenged on the basis that they are not practical – the incremental value they would yield is not worth the investment in today’s technology. I am OK with that. 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 affordable.

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