Until the well runs dry: Creating a database for future watersheds

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By Managing Editor Molly Barrieau

As you know, VIU sits on central Vancouver Island facing the Georgia Basin, the common point of which all of our watersheds—streams, creeks and rivers—run. The Island is fortunate to have an abundance of fresh and salt water to sustain our lives. However, understanding where and how our water changes by reacting to forestry and climate change is crucial to our future.

Studying such changes with a user-friendly online application could provide municipalities with the information to better decide future upgrades to our cities in terms of infrastructure, such as roadways and bridges.

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Robert Hudson.

Robert Hudson, 60, is the man behind this new pilot project, aptly named the Vancouver Island Hydrology Project. The project, which is still in the works, could provide our young university with more opportunities for Geology students to work within Nanaimo, using resources provided by VIU. This could lead to graduate programs and, according to Hudson’s proposal, an opportunity to create a Vancouver Island Applied Hydrology Institute.

While broad in scope, this idea could create a space for more students to study our watersheds on the Island and help us all better understand our waterways, which are in a state of constant change due to the way we live our lives. Operating the new program on the Island allows students and researchers to gather the information right at its source.

After 18 years completing his undergrad, Master’s, and PhD at the University of Calgary and UBC respectively, Hudson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and has been living with the disease for 22 years now. Although Hudson is unable to pursue professorship, this project allows him to continue

studying and using his knowledge to help students and municipalities across Vancouver Island.

After years of working on smaller projects, Hudson wanted to get back into his field of study, and began by looking at a map of Vancouver Island. “It all started when I was bored,” Hudson jokes, “I wanted to do some Hydrology, so I grabbed a map and started marking the watersheds.

“It occurred to me that the hydrology of the watersheds could be described by physical characteristics,” Hudson says. Hudson has lived on the Island for over 10 years. He believes the VI Hydrology Project could have benefits for VIU students and faculty which are comparable to those of the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute (MABRRI), where interdisciplinary students and faculty use the area to gather information on economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
Currently, the common practice in place is the comparison

Currently, the common practice in place is the comparison of “nearest sites with flow data to arrive at an estimate of the required design flows with unknown accuracy,” according to Hudson’s proposal. “The intent is to bring more accurate numbers for the industries that are involved in the construction of bridges and culverts, based on the morphological characteristics of the watershed that are known to affect peak flow. The accuracy of forecast flows also depends on how long of a data record is available. Many of the gauged watersheds on the Island have over 100 years of data. Finding the cumulative distribution function (CDF) of low flows is necessary for any municipality to build infrastructure above waterways. Understanding the flow over time as affected by forestry and climate change can help improve infrastructures. Finding the CDF of the watersheds is necessary for any municipality to build infrastructure above waterways.” Understanding the flow over time as affected by forestry and climate change can help build better bridges.

Hudson’s proposal states the current practice in place is the comparison of the “nearest sites with flow data to arrive at an estimate of the required design flows with unknown accuracy.” The intent is to bring more accurate numbers for the industries that count on watershed information.

“This will take the guesswork out of it,” says Hudson. If any company wants to build a stream crossing near waterways, they usually hire a hydrologist to apply a nearest gauged neighbours method to produce an “educated guess” as to what the Q100 might be. The physically-based model we are attempting to build to determine those design flows accounts for all factors that might affect peak flow. It is bound to be far more accurate than guesswork, according to Hudson.

The data collected, according to Hudson, can predict “how often really large events recur,” like flooding and droughts that affect cities like Tofino and Parksville due to aging roads and recent population growth.

Hudson hopes not only that the cities on the Island will be interested in this project, but also that it will generate engagement from the mainland municipalities that feed into the Georgia Basin. Information gathered from both areas can be used to consider their coastal counterpart’s water flows—especially due to the “variable terrains” of these two coasts—Island mountains and mainland valleys.

Hudson is hoping that as this project progresses, he can hand the reigns off to another hydrologist or VIU student. “I want to make sure someone else can take on the project,” he says, “to take on a life of its own.”