UT researchers develop smart stormwater basin to prevent flooding, protect water quality

Rylie Lillibridge, Senior News Reporter

UT researchers carried out a model-based study published in March that will help develop smart stormwater infrastructure designed to prevent flooding and protect water from contamination.

“You’ve probably seen stormwater infrastructure every day,” study author Matt Bartos said. “You probably see it on your commute to school or to work. … You’ll see large ponds, basins (or) … canals running along the roads. … Stormwater infrastructure is everywhere.” 

Bartos, an assistant professor of civil engineering, said stormwater infrastructure serves two purposes: flood control and water quality. Infrastructure such as detention basins are designed to store extra stormwater, while inlets and channels allow water to flow out of an area. Stormwater infrastructure also keeps natural water bodies clean by providing a place for contaminants to settle outside of the stormwater. However, Bartos said these two functions can conflict with one another.

“For flood control, typically you want to get water out of sensitive areas as fast as possible, which means trying to convey it rapidly away from urban areas,” Bartos said. “With water treatment, you want to generally keep the stormwater in place, so you want to allow it time for the contaminants to settle out. You also want to prevent erosion occurring downstream.”

Bartos said designing storm water systems with real-time controls could help balance the competing needs of their infrastructure.

“Rather than designing a static stormwater basin like we’ve done for many years now, we’re finding that you can actually get better performance by installing controllable elements, actuators, that can actually control the flow of water in real time,” Bartos said. 

The proposed solution, smart stormwater basins, would measure factors such as the depth of water in the basin, how cloudy the water is and the forecast for future precipitation in the area, according to Bartos. Current versions of smart stormwater infrastructure operate on an individual scale, but models that operate as a system are being developed.

“It offers a lot of opportunity to treat your drainage facilities as a system that’s all connected and integrated,” said Michael Barrett, research professor at the Center for Water and the Environment. “Anytime you can network things, you can make it more efficient and make and get better capacity to control the stormwater in this case.”

Bartos said developments in stormwater infrastructure technology are needed as climate change and increasing urbanization worsen the effects of storms.

“Climate change is creating more intense convective storm events that cause more runoff,” Bartos said. “(And) urbanization increases the impervious area in cities, so that also causes more water to run off when storm events occur. Real-time control can help with both flood control and water treatment.”

Bartos said the future of the research includes looking into ways to control contaminants other than sediment as well as working up to system-scale control.

Barrett said there have been major advances in the technology over the course of the last decade.

“We’re seeing gradual increases in sophistication, the ability to communicate in real time and (the ability) to modify the behavior of these facilities in a way to be more protective of the environment,” Barrett said.