It won’t impede any floodwaters this year, but a pricey computer-modelling program worth $1.7 million will be a valued tool battling rising rivers in years to come.
Canadian firm Aquanty Inc. is nearly a year away from unveiling an ambitious HydroGeoSphere computer simulation that, for the first time, will map the entirety of the Assiniboine River Basin.
By calculating the topography of the land, varied soil types, movement of water and numerous other inputs, the model will present scenarios.
"If we were to get this much rainfall, in this amount of time, what would we have to do to be prepared?" explained Wanda McFadyen, executive director of the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative, of one instance where the model would be deployed.
This data, like saturation and precipitation amounts, already exists, but it has never been melded together, linking the entire basin and its Qu’Appelle, Assiniboine and Souris watersheds as one unit.
"The primary layer of this model is being built from existing data that is there, but it’s fragmented. What this is doing is it’s taking all of the data from the three areas and putting it into one model," McFadyen said.
She described it simply as separate pieces of Legos — this model, then, would connect a base level of Legos together.
"It becomes a planning tool that doesn’t just look at runoff per se, but also looks at the soil’s capacity and the aquifers below it and their interaction," she explained, "and it’s also new that it’s crossing borders."
Though broad in scope, the model is intended to work at a micro level, benefitting individual municipalities, organizations and farmers.
For instance, a community might run the model to inform whether a subdivision should be built on low-lying land, she said.
Beyond flooding, the model would simulate various mitigation measures to lessen potential droughts, as well as calculate how different weather events affect agricultural land and the flood risk to urban centres downstream.
"It is a tool that is there for them to use," she said, "but no farmer or no backyard mechanic has just one tool in his toolbox."
The Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association (MFGA) and Agri-Food Canada’s Agri-Risk Initiative hold the licence for the model.
The federal government committed $1.1 million and the province is pledging $180,000. Various partners and supporters are covering the remainder of the cost.
Henry Nelson, MFGA’s project manager on the Aquanty project, said the model will have access to a staggering three million to five million data points for its simulations.
MFGA, which was approached by the federal government to be involved in the model’s development, is intrigued by the other objective of the project: considering the role of perennial forages, grasslands and wetlands in how the basin reacts to floods and droughts.
The model’s findings might incentivize farmers to set aside more of their land in water-hungry perennial crops, which doesn’t provide a high enough financial return to be a worthwhile investment to many farmers.
"We recognize that the loss of these crops is exacerbating the situation in respect to water management in the basin," he said.
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