Harnessing IoT Innovations in Intelligent Stormwater Management Systems

Sacramento River near Redding, Calif.,
A shot of the Sacramento River near Redding, Calif., just north of Red Bluff where the river came within a foot of its highest recorded level this past winter.

By Phil Beecher

Unforeseen amounts of precipitation in the winter of 2022-2023 replenished parched lakes and reservoirs but unleashed a staggering 78 trillion gallons of water on California alone, leading to extensive flooding and stormwater runoff. California experienced two significant atmospheric river events that pushed the Sacramento River at Red Bluff to within one foot of its highest recorded level. The Sierra Nevada mountains also received substantial snowfall, reaching the third-highest level at the Donner Pass since 1946.

How should communities evolve to handle these types of events, which will likely continue to proliferate? They need innovative stormwater management practices in place to mitigate the effects of such climatic extremes. Internet of Things (IoT) technology offers a promising avenue for developing more efficient tactics for managing stormwater capture and runoff, identifying mechanical malfunctions, and curbing pollution.

Exploring Potential through Smart Stormwater Management Pilot Programs

Pilot programs serve as catalysts in promoting smart stormwater management by providing a platform to experiment and optimize new technologies and approaches before large-scale execution.

A recent Wi-SUN study involving UK and U.S. IT decision makers revealed that 50 percent of organizations with smart utility strategies have successfully completed projects, an increase of more than 10 percent from five years ago. Yet, there’s considerable room for growth as the industry evolves. Thus, pilot programs are crucial in fostering innovation and guaranteeing the successful implementation of smart stormwater management initiatives.

The same survey showed that of 250 utility companies, three-quarters recognized the importance of pilot projects in driving innovation. In the same survey, 70 percent agreed that government funding was a vital component for the expansion of smart utility development. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more than $50 billion was provided to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to advance the nation’s drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure, which are primed for IoT pilot programs to prove out their value.

Leveraging IoT for Enhanced Collection, Conservation and Efficiency

The Clean and Safe Water Program puts nearly $300 million forward every year to capture and clean stormwater in Los Angeles. Although this program demonstrates a strong commitment to harnessing stormwater in drought-prone regions, its progress has been slow. Right now, about 80 percent of rainfall is whisked away by concrete pathways, which helps with flooding but prevents the heat-parched state from capturing stormwater. Additionally, three years in and the program has generated only 30 acres of new green space, one of the key approaches for capturing stormwater.

Innovation is needed to solve these complex stormwater problems, and IoT is one way to get there. Advanced meter infrastructure is now identified as the third most probable application for IoT deployments, as stated by 80 percent of respondents in the Wi-SUN study. Smart IoT devices can measure water quality and provide data about the environmental impact of stormwater. Cities like Louisville, Ky. have IoT sensors in their sewers and other waterways that gather data about water quality, especially after a storm.

Furthermore, the utilization of Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as sensors and real-time monitoring systems can greatly support stormwater management initiatives by providing valuable insights into the status of collection systems, particularly when they are nearing or surpassing their limits. These advanced tools can also swiftly identify regions with excessive runoff and enable necessary adjustments to stormwater infrastructure to effectively accommodate changing volumes.

Why Open Standards Matter

The incorporation of IoT systems can present hurdles due to issues of security, complexity, and the necessity for proven ROI. Therefore, employing the appropriate IoT technology, grounded on open standards, is essential for ensuring dependability, resilience, and security.

Field area networks (FANs) predicated on wireless mesh topologies are an ideal option, as 5G communications can’t provide the energy-efficiency or cost requirements needed. Choosing standards-based FAN technology provides access to a wider choice of device manufacturers, fostering cost efficiencies and reducing the risk of vendor lock-in. Additionally, a stormwater deployment that covers a large outdoor area requires a variety of IoT devices such as advanced metering and pressure sensors and standards-based FAN technology can provide this without interoperability concerns.

Costs are reduced further by cities like Dallas that have deployed smart street lighting installations. Integrating FAN networks to create a canopy network from which stormwater managers can attach leaf nodes for their edge devices can be viewed as an investment rather than an expenditure. This opens up commercial opportunities with energy companies and local municipalities, too.

Most importantly, as devices must meet stringent standards, they offer added reliability, resilience, and security. With the nation’s critical infrastructure frequently targeted by cyber threats and the EPA’s March 2023 requirement that states survey cybersecurity practices at public water systems, the importance of investing in devices certified to meet standards-based authentication and encryption is critical. Standards-based devices and networks are safeguarded from spoofing and data interception, thereby reducing the risk of sabotage, ransom attacks, or data theft. According to research, security and safety continue to be the most common technical challenges among IoT project managers.

The wet winter of 2022-2023 was another reminder that we need to make smart choices about how we manage stormwater. A multitude of choices, innovation, and opportunities await stormwater management programs that embrace IoT to address their urgent issues. Public funding, pilot programs, and open standards-based FANs are three pivotal components to managing stormwater in the most sophisticated ways.

Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, a global non-profit member-based association driving the proliferation of interoperable wireless solutions for use in smart cities and other IoT applications.

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