AWRA Conference logo in front of Woodbridge, VA.

AWRA Conference 2016 – Improving Water Resilience & Water Monitoring Data

The sessions and presentations at the 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 stereotypical engineer with pocket protectors and a slide rule. A session on ‘women in water’ was a very well-attended celebration of the increasing diversity of the water sector. 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.

Water management has become increasingly intricate and complex, and we can’t assume that we can build our way out of our water problems.

What we can do is use our data, information, knowledge, and experience to build effective communities for proactive water stewardship and collaborative management. Water is a fluid common denominator connecting all interests at a watershed scale. Long-term collaborative water-focused communities are needed to drive decisions at time- and space-scales that will ensure water security and sustainability at a watershed scale.

Improving water resilience was either an explicit or implicit theme of many sessions.

There is an enormous capital debt in water infrastructure that has accumulated and needs to be paid. A non-discretionary investment is needed not only because of inevitable end-of-life of aging infrastructure, but also because the hydro-climate regime these systems were designed for doesn’t exist anymore. If aging systems don’t fail by chronic decay, they will fail by being overwhelmed by unprecedented event magnitude, duration, extent, and frequency.

This massive investment is a once in a hundred years opportunity to examine the relative benefits of grey versus green infrastructure. Increasing the proportion of green infrastructure in the re-build could substantially reduce the total cost of ownership of our water assets. However, there is a lot of work left to be done to prove the efficiency, effectiveness, and savings of green infrastructure investment to ensure that the right decisions are made.

The big take-away from this conference, for me, is that the need for ‘good’ water monitoring data is greater than it ever has been.

It isn’t that the traditional uses of data have disappeared, it is that there are now an overwhelming number of new uses of water information. The capabilities of the data consumers have been increasing at a pace that, arguably, exceeds the change in capabilities of the water monitoring community.

There are rapidly emerging changes in the technologies, techniques, and methods for water monitoring, and the effectiveness of these changes should be calibrated against new and emerging fitness for purpose criteria. The water monitoring community is largely absent from this conference. There is a lost opportunity for the data users to learn from the data providers and vice versa.

I had a chat with Michael Campana and Brenda Bateman, the co-chairs of the 2017 conference in Portland, about the opportunity to bring the monitoring community back home to the AWRA. There are many probable causes for this disconnect. Water monitoring agencies are inadequately funded. There is no time, money, nor mandate for sending hydrographers to conferences. Most conferences have little to offer a field hydrographer. Monitoring is a place-based activity, the practice of which disperses hydrographers widely rather than bringing them together.

With some planning and coordination we can build a program for Portland that will entice hydrographers in from the field.

If we can do that then they can learn from each other, they can learn about the new purposes for which their data are being used, and end-users can learn about the new capabilities of monitoring. Mark your calendar for November 5-9 2017 and plan a trip to Portland.

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