Farm Ireland

Sunday 26 February 2017

Time to start using technology when forecasting floods

Gillian Westbrook

The flooding last December was clearly unprecedented and, although in certain circumstances water levels were increased by poorly planned development, there was flooding in areas that had never experienced it before.

Whether it is an indication of future patterns remains to be seen, but what is apparent is that some intelligent thinking needs to be applied to what can be done to reduce the consequences of future flooding.

Could the impact of the flooding have been controlled to some degree? The answer is yes; had available information and technology been put to better use.

As well as the more traditional flood-risk maps, there is a wealth of information available through State agencies, which should have warned of the impending disaster. Several agencies are responsible for the collection and dissemination of water-level monitoring.

The Office of Public Works, the lead agency for flood risk management, operates an extensive hydrometric network which routinely measures ground water levels.

The national register for hydrometric gauging stations is available on the EPA webpage, detailing 1,958 measurement sites. Descriptions of many stations include reference to 'data logging equipment', indicating that some monitoring equipment is fitted with systems providing electronic data, which chart groundwater levels on a day-to-day basis. The important aspect is that these gauging stations hold key information with real-time data capability (as-it-happens measurements) that, with just a little thought and investment, could form the basis for a network of early flood warning systems.

It's clear that with the persistent heavy rainfall through last summer, groundwater levels would have been abnormally high, so the potential for flooding increased significantly in the face of further heavy rainfall in November. It was a missed opportunity that this data, being so accurately collected, was only being used retrospectively and not used as a means to warn people in areas vulnerable to flooding.

Most farmers are comfortable with mobile phone technology; and use phones for much more than just making calls. A centrally managed system using text messaging could be developed to warn farmers of unusually high groundwater levels and river flows at times when it could present a risk if more heavy rainfall was expected. The information could vary according to location, even right down to regional or district levels.

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Technologically, this would require some joined-up thinking at Government level. But for a moderate investment, the equipment to collect and send on the water level information in real time could be networked. Longer-term trends could be analysed, as well as short-term information that could be used in an emergency. This would allow interested parties to manage the situation on the individual farms with a degree of planning, rather than being forced to react during and after the event.

If this system was developed it would provide important early warning alerts, allowing farmers to take defensive action. Stock and fodder could be moved to higher ground. Equipment and belongings could be moved to higher floors. The spreading of slurry or fertiliser could be delayed if prior knowledge of an imminent flood threat could be identified and communicated -- even at a most basic level.

Of course, in some situations, no amount of warning could have solved the horrific and unprecedented extent of the floods, but that is no reason not to try to minimise the amount of damage on as many farms as possible.

As well as flood warnings, there is a huge amount of potential for such systems in other areas of farming. There are various applications for the use of weather and environment data that could provide farmers with a wealth of information. For instance, Met Eireann currently puts out warnings of when conditions are right for potato blight. Other EU countries are developing meteorological data sources as early warning systems to identify potential threats such as Bluetongue disease.

Another potential application for the use of current daily data is in determining the appropriate times for slurry spreading, which may provide a more efficient nutrient management tool than the current spreading-by-dates system.

While checking the weather after the 9am news will never be outdated as far as farmers are concerned, it is time that we look at ways of taking advantage of the much more precise information that is available and how this information might be more precisely tailored to individual circumstances and locations.

Irish Independent