|CSIRO | SOLVE | Issue 10 | FEB 07|
Quenching Data Thirst the First Step to Water Security
By Youna Angevin-Castro
Researchers are developing information technologies to lift the accuracy of water resource monitoring and better equip the nation's water managers to plan ahead.
When it comes to Australia's most precious natural resource, water, most authorities agree that reliable monitoring is integral to its long-term management. As an increasingly scarce and highly contested commodity, there is obvious potential for disagreements over water access and use.
To address this, a CSIRO-led Water for a Healthy Country Flagship research project is developing information technologies to help water managers better understand the status and trend of our national water resources, to facilitate better planning and investment in water infrastructure and to maximise the value of this fragile resource.
A Water Resources Observation Network (WRON) was instigated by CSIRO’s Dr Rob Vertessy in response to the clear need for more accurate monitoring of Australia’s water resources.
Arising out of early planning for the eWater Cooperative Research Centre – a research centre formed by the Australian Government to facilitate water management and decision making – WRON seeks to create foundation technologies to revolutionise water information management, and harness this information to provide a more accurate understanding of the country’s water outlook. “WRON came about following the realisation that data sets for water in Australia are generally poorly organised,” says Mr Ross Ackland of the CSIRO Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Centre. “They are spread across a number of different agencies, are reported in a variety of different formats and can be difficult to access. It became apparent that to better manage water resources in Australia, we have to first improve the way we manage our water data.”
WRON will provide a distributed, web-based integrated data management resource, supported by a range of specific tools and applications, which will allow end-users to access data quickly and easily, with the knowledge that the data has been subjected to a strict set of standards. Ultimately, it is hoped that WRON technologies will:
Mr Ackland describes Dr Vertessy’s WRON vision as a 'beacon on the hill', and he saw an opportunity to develop information and communication technologies that could support the management of data sets specifically for the water industry.
Fundamental to WRON’s success is the ability to collaborate and work in partnership with the many agencies and water authorities around the country.
Mr Ackland says most stakeholders recognise the value of sharing their data, and welcome the opportunity to help shape data standards. “Water is a hot political topic, particularly with the drought and spectre of long-term climate change. Therefore, most people do recognise the importance and value of what a WRON is setting out to achieve.
“However, we did discover that there were some concerns with privacy and security of data sharing. Sharing of water data does not mean free and open access to all data. This is one of the areas that the ICT Centre has been able to address – we’ve done a lot of work in the past for the health industry regarding privacy and security applications for sensitive data, and knew that we could apply these same principles to the water industry.”
Dr Stuart Minchin, of CSIRO Land and Water, says CSIRO has made a serious commitment to WRON and industry is becoming more and more convinced of the value of getting involved. “Water is a very valuable resource and yet we still don’t have a very good idea of how much water we’ve got and how much we’ll have in the future,” Dr Minchin says.
He uses the Australian Dam Levels Monitor project as an example of how WRON technologies can work to improve data delivery.
“Prior to the Dam Levels Monitor, dam-level data could only be obtained by manually visiting numerous websites managed by different water authorities. This search could be lengthy as visitors would often have to browse the websites and read information unrelated to the information they were seeking before finally finding the required data.”
The team developed a process that involves sending a web robot – a customised program that automatically scans the hypertext structure of a website – to these websites, which then harvests the data and collates it into a centralised database. This data can then be re-served as an online web service to end-users.
“This technology enables us to deliver dam-level data in a whole range of different ways, and demonstrates how, if we come to some agreement on how to present water data, we can create all sorts of useful tools,” Dr Minchin says.
“The point is, once you have done the hard work of making the data accessible using a standards-based interface, the ways in which this consumer data can be presented are unlimited, and can be tailored for specific uses.”
While WRON technologies are likely to improve the way existing historical data is managed, they are also delivering on projects that raise the potential for future problem-solving applications.
One such application is the Fleck-based Sensor Network, being established in the Burdekin Delta sugar-cane region, in research led by CSIRO’s Dr Pavan Sikka, with the potential to help manage a major environmental issue: saltwater intrusion.
“WRON technologies gave our team the opportunity to develop an on-farm sensor network for environmental monitoring of a serious problem,” Dr Sikka says.
His team has been working with the North Queensland Water Board (NQWB) in the Burdekin region, where productivity has been affected in some areas by increased salinity levels in an otherwise highly productive region.
“Most irrigation of the Burdekin’s sugarcane fields is achieved by pumping groundwater,” Dr Sikka says. “If salinity exceeds certain levels, this can seriously damage sugarcane crops.”
This problem is difficult to manage due to uncertainty about what is really happening in the aquifer. CSIRO developed the Fleck Sensor Network to tackle this problem, enabling real-time monitoring of pumping levels from underground water bores, and allowing the NQWB and CSIRO to improve their understanding of this complex and variable groundwater system.
The improved understanding will allow the NQWB to identify better management strategies for the groundwater system, and consequently maintain high farm productivity.
“The real advantages of this kind of sensor network are its relatively low cost and the ability to monitor how much water is being pumped, and the salinity and groundwater levels at specific pumping sites,” Dr Sikka says. “The information can then be distributed directly to the local water board via the internet, and has the potential in the future to prevent over-pumping at any particular site.”
Monitoring is being carried out across 20 sites, but Dr Sikka says that the potential to monitor hundreds of sites simultaneously, by organising multiple networks in a hierarchical structure, is where the power of the system lies. He says this has the potential to be particularly useful in regional areas, where pumping sites may be spread out across hundreds of kilometres and may be located in remote areas.
“It means we can monitor water use across a network of stations, as opposed to collecting isolated data from individual sites,” Dr Sikka says. “There is also the potential for remote monitoring, minimising the need for complicated infrastructure.”
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