High-tech flood monitoring planned for Ellicott City watershed

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Editor’s note: Less than a week after this article was published, Ellicott City was inundated with another flood. The status of the EKG devices detailed in this article was not immediately clear.

In an effort to better monitor the “veins” of the heart of historic Ellicott City, its waterways, officials on Monday announced plans to install “EKGs,” as county councilman Jon Weinstein called them— stream gauges that experts say will help them analyze water flow patterns and buy residents valuable time to make preparations for flooding.

Forty-eight gauges will be installed at 16 locations throughout the surrounding Tiber-Hudson watershed through a partnership with the National Weather Service and the Department of Homeland Security.

Ellicott City is one of three locations nationwide included in the federal $1.5 million pilot program to bring low-cost, internet connected sensors to towns to detect and monitor flooding.

County Executive Allan Kittleman applauded the project at the announcement outside the Ellicott City Colored School on Frederick Road. The building is on the edge of the historic district, an area where properties have been built on top of narrow, winding stream channels prone to flooding, and that in 2016 fell victim to six inches of rain in two hours that sent waters down Main Street and killed two people.

“This is what happens when the community, the government officials, the national entities as well, come together for the right thing and good things can happen,” Kittleman said.

The first gauges are scheduled for installation in June, and will be added in phases throughout the summer. Three types of sensors that gather real-time data on the level and velocity of water will be tested, according to David Alexander, a Homeland Security program director.

“We used to have to rely on modeling and simulation, but now through the internet of things, these sensors [can] provide us with this kind of information in real time that’s really going to change a lot on the community response, for our emergency management officials and others,” Alexander said.

That data could help officials more quickly alert residents about impending flooding if they know how soon the water may rise to a dangerous level based on collected data. Sensors have the potential to connect to an alert system that could be sent to phones, giving residents time for preparation in a flood emergency when “minutes matter,” Alexander said.

Had the gauge system and analysis existed before the July 2016 flood, residents may have been able to use those minutes to deploy some floodproofing measures, such as temporary flood doors and barriers, according to Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Phil Nichols.

Installation of the gauges will continue throughout the summer and the gauges will remain in place for six to 12 months. Afterwards, Kittleman said the county would move the gauges to other locations surrounding the watershed to monitor the flow of water into Ellicott City and the surrounding 4 square mile watershed that feeds into the Patapsco River.

Homeland Security will share the data with the county and other federal agencies, including the United States Geological Survey and the National Weather Service. The weather service also will use the data for analysis to help predict what could happen and give people more time to prepare before a storm hits, National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Chris Strong said.

Ellicott City presented a “unique test case” of how the sensors could work in a flood-prone area, Alexander said, and the agency appreciated the strong partnership offered by the county and property owners who hold a vested interest in the issue.

The project is the latest in a string of efforts from county, state and federal levels in response to the 2016 flood as officials search for new ways to protect the city against flooding. In March, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers released a report on floodproofing recommendations and the county is developing Ellicott City’s watershed master plan to protect the area, including the construction of retention ponds and other water flow improvements.

kmagill@baltsun.com

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