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Go with the flow

Summer flood protection in East Anglia will take a great leap forward when the Environment Agency introduces an advanced computer-controlled flood forecasting system. In the opening feature of NCE's quarterly IT Focus, Richard Thompson reports on the proj

Last year's floods in East Anglia gave tangible proof that flood control and forecasting is a priority for the region. But, ironically, those very floods set back the introduction of the system that will automatically flag up flood risks there.

WS Atkins, Litton Weather Services International and the Danish Hydraulic Institute were last month awarded the £1.33M Environment Agency contract. And now that the project has received the green light, the region can look forward to having one of the world's most advanced warning systems.

The Environment Agency had been hoping to introduce the Anglian Region Flow Forecast & Modelling System in April last year but the floods at Easter 1998 delayed the project for three months, while key personnel worked on the flood's aftermath. The project was then further delayed following the publication of the Bye report into the floods. This called for flood-warning systems throughout England and Wales to be harmonised and for new systems to be assessed for their applicability to other regions.

The flow forecasting system works by comparing historical data on flood levels with real-time water-flow information from 650 telemetric monitoring stations and radar-gathered rainfall data. If key trigger levels are reached the system issues a warning to users that there is a possible flood risk.

'The system has the potential to forecast for any region,' explains WS Atkins project manager Dr Colin Fenn. 'It does this by comparing river levels and river flow data against flooding levels. It can then prompt you with a list of thresholds that have been exceeded.'

But the system is not solely for flood protection. Because it will be integrated with existing flow-control machinery around the network, the engineers will be able to control water flows far more efficiently than at present.

Another key feature is that users will be able to access the system from anywhere through the internet. 'One of the features of the system is that it will be easily accessible to different types of user,' says Environment Agency project manager Dan Cadman. 'It has been designed so that the complex information is presented in different ways to suit different users. For example, engineers might require a forecast plus detailed results, while others - perhaps the emergency services - will only need the forecasts.'

The system is to be introduced in two test catchments - the Welland- Glen, and the Witham - this summer, before being extended.

'The test catchments provide a representative range of the problems of the region,' explains Cadman. 'Welland-Glen contains a range of flows from uplands where we will be able to look at water quality data, through to fenland that has large flooding implications and extraction issues. Witham has one of the few hydrodynamic real-time models in the UK with an optimising routine that allows us to operate flood gates. That will be a real proving ground.'

Head of flood management at the Danish Hydraulic Institute, Jacob Host- Madsen, describes the new flow forecasting system as a framework. 'The system is really a shell with a number of building blocks,' he says. 'It contains database management software to control data from the telemetry system and software to control the hardware. The key thing is that the system is open to software and hardware from other manufacturers.'

The software will be integrated into standard flow-control hardware installed in an earlier phase of a huge 10-year programme aimed at improving the EA's monitoring and forecasting of water systems.

The overall programme is in four phases, says PB Kennedy & Donkin project manager Alan Knott. Phase one, involving installation of telemetry monitoring and control systems, began in 1996.

'This phase involves setting up the modelling and forecasting systems. Phase three will see more outstations and the final phase will involve setting up new gauging stations,' he says.

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