The Institute for Water Resources’(IWR) Hydrologic Engineering Center (HEC), located in Davis, CA, takes home the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Innovation of the Year Award for adding Post-Wildfire Modeling capabilities to its software. These software capabilities provide prediction tools that engineers can use to anticipate a unique type of flooding that can follow a combination of fire and floods.
The software development was led by a USACE project delivery team with collaboration between HEC, the Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, and USACE District Engineers, who incorporated the post-wildfire modeling capabilities into HEC's hydrology and hydraulic software. What resulted was award-winning predictive capabilities that advances the nation’s fight against floods, and especially post-wildfire flooding.
Hydrologic Engineering Center Director, Chris Dunn, highlighted the significance of the achievement. “The team’s efforts culminated in truly groundbreaking capabilities which are of great value to the nation and to the engineers who use the tools. The engineers analyze watersheds where wildfires have occurred, and they attempt to predict what could happen in watersheds where wildfires may occur in the future. The incorporation of these capabilities into HEC-HMS and HEC-RAS will better help engineers, emergency planners, and the public understand their risks and appropriately prepare. A big part of our jobs is to understand and help others understand their risks. These capabilities have helped us to do so in a big way.”
According to Stanford Gibson, HEC’s Sediment Transport Specialist, the modeling tool is increasingly relevant due to an uptick in wildfires in the western United States and the destructive or deadly nature of wildfires, and the potential for mud and debris flows to follow. “Wildfires are kind of a big deal these days. But after the wildfire, the danger isn’t over. The fire changes the landscape, so subsequent rain can cause sudden mud and debris flows. We added analysis tools to our software – which is already industry standard for flood risk – to forecast the impact of these events and plan emergency management actions,” Gibson said.
Specifically, the models are now superpowered by a library of new equations to handle the unique physics of these events which improves the agency’s ability to more anticipate the likelihood and magnitude of a post-fire event, where it will flow and how deep the flooding will be. “This is crucial for emergency assessments and mitigation measures,” said Dr. Jay Pak, HEC Hydraulic Engineer, “as it allows USACE to more accurately predict post-fire flood risk and respond accordingly. Additionally, the establishment of a long-term modeling framework enables USACE to continuously simulate post-fire flooding, debris flow risk, and ecology recovery in downstream ecosystems and communities over a 10-year period,” Pak said.
These capabilities are critical for USACE as the agency has a role in responding to post-wildfire hazards. “As the nation’s premier flood risk agency, our partners turn to us when they face any kind of flood risk, whether the water is blue (traditional flood water) or brown (mud and debris-filled flood waters). They expect us to have the capabilities to forecast their flood risk and evaluate mitigation alternatives, no matter the scenario, which requires increased analysis since the physics of mud and debris flows is more complicated than water. This effort got the tools our Corps districts need into their hands to meet these expectations for post-wildfire hazards,” Gibson said.
In addition to increasing predictive capabilities and response efforts, the software also increases opportunities for collaboration among key partners, thanks in part to the research and development touchpoints occurring between state, local and federal agencies utilizing the software. Pak emphasized that such cross-agency collaboration can lead to more effective and efficient emergency response and risk mitigation measures, such as was recognized in the innovation award. “The team behind this innovation can be proud of the fact that we developed new capabilities in the HEC-Hydrologic Modeling System (HEC-HMS) and the HEC-River Analysis System (HEC-RAS) from scratch through research, software development, technical transfer, and applications. This is a significant achievement that required a lot of hard work, collaboration, and expertise from multiple organizations and individuals. The fact that we were able to develop these capabilities from scratch demonstrates our innovation, creativity, and dedication to improving emergency assessments and mitigation measures for post-fire hydrological phenomenon. This award is a recognition of our hard work and a testament to the impact that our innovation can have on protecting communities and infrastructure from the effects of post-fire flooding,” said Pak. He also added, “Personally, this was a dream come true for me as it provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to utilize my previous Ph.D. research in developing new capabilities for post-wildfire hydrology and debris flow.”
Gibson also reflected upon the team’s achievement, acknowledging the truly innovative approach required. “The hydraulics include some pretty “crunchy” math. Mud and debris flows aren’t water and require new physics and theory. It delves into the world of rheology (which partly studies the flow of complex liquids) and non-Newtonian physics (which studies fluids that depart from Newton’s viscosity assumptions), both of which are fun for someone like me,” said Gibson. “But by getting it into HEC-RAS, the flood risk model that our agency (and ~100,000 people around the world) already use, we got these capabilities into the field, and they were used in planning and emergency management studies in four different USACE districts within a year of release. We trained more than 40 people on these tools at the first class in late April, which means that within a couple years of their release they are just part of the Corp’s wildfire response,” Gibson added.
Gibson also addressed key players in the achievement saying, “We collaborated with USACE Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) to develop the algorithms and library…particularly Dr. Ian Floyd, ERDC research physical scientist, and Dr. Alex Sánchez, senior hydraulic engineer at HEC did a lot of the HEC-RAS development.
The PDT is also releasing web videos on the theory and practice behind these new methods. The post-wildfire team has developed seven videos on these topics that have been viewed over 7,500 times since their release. The team has embedded these videos directly into the online user help features, making them directly accessible from the software.
Visit https://www.hec.usace.army.mil/confluence/rasdocs/rasmuddebris to learn more about this innovative capability or https://www.hec.usace.army.mil/software/hec-hms/training.aspx to access a training material link which is a portal to the HMS capabilities and videos.
The primary goal of the Hydrologic Engineering Center (CEIWR-HEC) is to support the nation in its water resources management responsibilities by increasing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) technical capability in hydrologic engineering and water resources planning and management. One way CEIWR-HEC accomplishes this goal is by bringing state-of-the-art research and development into state-of-the-practice, which advances hydrologic engineering and water resources planning.
In the past, when someone at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) mentioned clouds, they most often were referring to the weather. However, in today’s modern context, “the cloud” can mean many things. At USACE’s Institute for Water Resources (IWR), it most often describes the Civil Works Business Intelligence (CWBI) program. CWBI has been a USACE leader in cloud implementation over the past 10 years and continues to refactor Civil Works data and system assets to gain efficiencies, integrate resources, and reduce Information Technology (IT) maintenance and cost.
The CWBI program is one of USACE’s key Automated Information Systems (AIS) and is a critical backbone to the Civil Works mission. “CWBI touches almost every aspect of the Civil Works mission as it relates to data and information delivery,” says Mr. Edward E. Belk Jr., Director of Civil Works. “We rely on the cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity implementation, and system engineering services CWBI provides to ensure critical data and analysis mission requirements are met.” CWBI’s current purpose is to integrate Civil Works data in a cloud-smart environment that standardizes data organization and management, ensures cybersecurity, delivers innovative technology solutions, rationalizes resources, and enhances visualization. CWBI currently supports more than 100 Civil Works applications across the USACE enterprise and is used widely by internal and external stakeholders. CWBI partners with multiple entities within USACE, federal partners, and others to deliver data and resources where it is needed most. For example, CWBI’s cloud infrastructure serves as the backbone to help regulatory permits be issued, the public understand where levees and dams are located, and to deliver navigation charts to vessel operators traversing inland waterways. CWBI is led by a small program management office overseen by IWR and the USACE Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab’s Remote-Sensing and GIS Center of Expertise. “As the first production cloud operating environment within USACE, CWBI has transitioned standalone applications to a cloud environment where levels of computational capacity, data management, data interconnectivity, and cyber security that were unattainable only a few years ago,” stated Dr. Joe Manous, IWR Director. “These accomplishments are why the CWBI team was recognized as the IWR 2022 Team of the Year.”
CWBI leverages the cloud in benefit of the Civil Works mission to deliver critical products to decision-makers and the public. For example, CWBI is responsible for providing a common resource in the cloud to collect data for Civil Works operation and maintenance (O&M) activities. CWBI then couples the O&M information with financial details from other USACE AIS to help report program status, performance metrics, and compliance with legislation and regulation. “CWBI plays a vital role in the Hydropower Business Line’s understanding of the operational performance of its generating assets,” stated Mr. David Sanna, USACE Hydropower Digital Transformation Lead. “Hydropower has worked directly with the CWBI team to develop and deploy a new Hydropower Homepage within the CWBI platform, which establishes a central hub for communication, data reporting, and visualization of key performance metrics across the business line. Building on this foundation, the Hydropower Business Line is engaging with CWBI on further development to track additional data sources and enhance the analytical tools available to its users.” In addition to Hydropower, CWBI is also supporting other Civil Works O&M business lines. For example, the USACE Natural Resources Management (NRM) program supports all USACE missions while having the unique assignment to manage and protect more than 260 million public visitors annually at over 400 lakes and approximately 5,000 parks in 43 states. “Efficiencies of managing the natural, cultural, environmental and recreation come from understanding the inventory, performance, benefits and resources for each project,” states, Mr. Jeffrey Krause, Natural Resources Management Chief. “Moving the data from multiple databases and platforms to CWBI provides a one stop entry and reporting tool to maximize use of resources, improve public safety and quickly show leaders and the public the benefits the NRM Program offers to the nation.”
CWBI also utilizes the cloud to innovate. When a new solution is necessary to support Civil Works, CWBI employs Software as a Service (SaaS), serverless technology, or containerized delivery using an agile approach instead of traditional servers, stand-alone software packages, and databases that require significant maintenance and attention. “We cannot afford to just lift and shift assets to the cloud without any changes,” stated Lyle Seethaler, CWBI Technical Lead. “CWBI helps data and system owners evaluate their requirements so they can be properly configured and take advantage of the various components a cloud environment offers.” Furthermore, CWBI utilizes cloud IT resources to scale assets as requirements change and share engineering and cybersecurity resources to help the USACE Civil Works mission save money. If each Civil Works application were to pay for its own cloud environment, then the annual cost to support these initiatives would be exponentially greater. CWBI has worked to methodically migrate Civil Works applications year-by-year to the cloud. It has taken time, but refactoring applications to gain benefit from cloud-native solutions allows for cost-savings, elasticity, and flexibility. Each Civil Works application is often different, so re-architecting to modify software and codebase allows for cloud-based features to be incorporated and utilized. CWBI also serves as a rationalizer, ensuring data is integrated and applications are amalgamated where possible.
Now that so many Civil Works assets have migrated to the cloud, CWBI is proactively focusing on the data elements that reside there to ensure they are visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure (VAULTIS). “To achieve USACE’s vision of becoming a data-driven enterprise and leveraging the data insights to make better informed decisions requires all its mission and business areas to come together and develop standardized, automated, and repeatable processes addressing data governance, access, quality,” states Mr. Walton Cheung, USACE Chief Data Officer. “CWBI is contributing to the USACE Enterprise Data Strategy goals and objectives by leaning into the VAULTIS principles. This transformation is incremental, and I appreciate CWBI partnering with me to achieve this vision on our journey together.” Additionally, to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning, CWBI must be aligned with VAULTIS principles so that outputs are meaningful. “The adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ rings true,” says Mr. Will Breitkreutz, CWBI Technical Lead. “How can you expect to take advantage of automation if your data is not accurate or well documented? You cannot. Therefore, CWBI’s role in data management in the cloud and implementing a clear strategy is necessary for the USACE Civil Works mission to be successful.”
This year, the CWBI program is focused on maintaining its core services, data-focused delivery, fulfilling modernization assignments, and supporting the Civil Works modules hosted within its cloud environment. For example, the program is actively developing a new Corps Project Notebook application to help the USACE enterprise report and track project locations in a standardized format using a common geospatial solution set that is aligned with defined USACE regulation. Furthermore, CWBI is expanding its geospatial capability with the deployment of a new Geographic Information System (GIS) environment that takes advantage of cloud-native setup and will deliver mission needs internally as well as to the public. The new environment will be more robust than previous iterations and standardize multiple GIS processes.
Engineering in the cloud has allowed CWBI to deliver an easy to use, flexible, cost-effective, reliable, scalable, innovative, and secure system. CWBI’s cloud environment is capable of automation, mobility, and integration. It will continue to take effort and resources to maintain, but the impression of what a cloud means to the USACE Civil Works mission has changed.
To learn more about the CWBI program and its cloud engineering efforts, please contact the USACE Institute for Water Resources at IWR@usace.army.mil.