Small Cities Win With Big Data

So many of the conferences and presentations I attend have some phenomenal stormwater study, with a hundred sensors and a highly detailed model, and I just wonder….what about the rest of us? The small towns? Those who don’t have massive stormwater, drainage, or flood control budgets? Ones where one problem impacts a very significant percentage of their citizens?

The networks I’ve seen in these presentation can be incredibly expensive. They cost millions of dollars. They provide even more millions in benefits, so it’s absolutely worth it! If you can afford it. Reminds me of the old adage, “It takes money to make money.”

So back to my original question: what about the rest of us? Small towns flood too. Backups happen in smaller systems just as much—if not more—than they do in bigger systems. Impacts of backups and flood events affect more of the population. And budgets can’t cover everything….especially climate change, which can be hard to grasp and put a tax on. How do these communities get the same benefit as the big ones?

First, we have to identify your priorities; we don’t need to monitor everywhere all the time. Maybe you know exactly where the problems are; that’s excellent! Maybe you want to deploy a network focused on maintenance. It’s a bit more widespread, but definitely doable. And if you are not sure, start with a risk index. Yes, StormSensor® has one, of course. We call it SURFR™, or the Stormwater Urban Flood Risk Index.

It considers a variety of land use, geographic, and socioeconomic layers to prioritize watersheds or census tracts—depending on your focus—according to risk and resilience. You can pull out one layer at a time; here’s Boston’s imperviousness:

But I was talking about small towns, and Boston isn’t really so small. If we combined all of the parameters into a single SURFR index for Skokie, IL, for example, here’s what we get:

Watershed basins are delineated in the images on the left; census tracts are presented on the right. Looking at this, you can pretty clearly see the differences between parameters and the overall drivers of risk as identified by SURFR, even within a town that covers about 10 square miles.

Once you have your priorities outlined—with or without a risk index—then you can deploy a network of monitoring points that track how water moves through the storm and sewer systems.

These networks track maintenance requirements, backup, surcharging, I&I, IDDE, overflows, you name it. And you can respond or plan as needed.

Because while some towns may have fewer people or cover less land area, the impact of problems as a result of any of these issues is outsized and has a much greater effect across the community than you would see in a bigger city. So they really do matter.

These solutions don’t need to cost millions. They don’t even need to cost hundreds of thousands. You design a network that works for you, provides the benefits that you want to see, and helps you run your town more smoothly and with fewer stormy hiccups. It’s definitely worth a try.

About the author

Erin Rothman

Talk stormwater with With more than 15 years of environmental consulting experience, Erin observed so many opportunities for innovation in the stormwater industry. With those in mind, she founded StormSensor to enthusiastically embrace new technology to help solve the problems of an age-old industry.