Design, Model, Visualize

Sept. 1, 2004

Software, computers, and total stations have become tools as familiar and useful as bulldozers, hydroseeding machines, and geogrids. Erosion control specialists have learned to use different software for surveying, modeling, mapping, and design, and many of them have advanced into innovative uses of these software products. Here are some recent projects undertaken by erosion control professionals around the country.

Adaptability for Channel Design

Dan Braden, now a civil engineering technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Ohio, remembers learning and applying specific software modules for a project in Cheyenne, WY, in 1997. The Allison Draw project was designed to handle flooding that would occur during intense storms. The designed channel was 80 feet wide at the bottom with about 3:1 sloping sides 5 feet deep. The work was done in phases.

Braden recalls the design team included engineers from several state agencies, and they discussed what software was available at the time. As a team, they decided on Eagle Point, and Braden was sent to Seattle for training. “I became the main go-to person for the software,” he said. “Once I climbed the mountain learning it, I saw how valuable it could be.”

Eagle Point software of Dubuque, IA, has been developing software for the civil engineering market since 1983. Current modules include RoadCalc, Profiles, and Site Design. Each of these modules can be integrated with others to perform surveying, planning land use and erosion control, or entire site plans.

The software runs on AutoCAD, Microstation, and Eagle Point’s own system, as well as all Windows operating systems. System requirements are an Intel-based Pentium processor, Windows (2000 or XP recommended), at least 128 megabytes of RAM, 200 megabytes of free hard drive space, monitor, mouse, and CD ROM drive. Also required is either AutoCAD or AutoDesk program and the Eagle Point graphics engine software.

For the Allison Draw project, the team used the RoadCalc module. Although this module is designed for roadways, it was easy to use for channel design. Braden says the team inverted the relationship of the layers of material to design the channel.

The section he worked on was 4,900 feet of channel, part of it through the campus of Laramie County Community College. Engineers performed the surveys and Braden input the data. The software translated the data no matter the scale or type. More than 5,000 points were entered. The design of the channel included some areas of riprap lining. Using the software, Braden calculated that 14,000 cubic yards of rock would be needed. He also was able to develop the curve data in RoadCalc and believes an immense amount of time was saved by the flexibility and capability of the software.

Braden later moved to Ohio, where he still is using the system for very different types of applications. NRCS is frequently requested to assist on projects to handle animal waste. One large project involved the development of earthmoving plans for a settle basin and anaerobic waste lagoon for a hog operation housing about 600 sows. Two buildings were constructed on a single pad, with the largest being 640 by 280 feet. Using the module Site Design, Braden says, was a balancing act between sufficient capacity to handle the waste and amount of earth to be moved. The software allows you to design excavation fills or dikes with lots of speed once you get the hang of it, he says. “It puts you invisibly behind the seat of the bulldozer so you can say, ‘been there, done that’ before the contractor even starts working.” The hog operation project required total excavation of 22,000 cubic yards.

Work on wetlands is becoming a bigger part of Braden’s workload. As landowners enroll in NRCS’s Wetlands Reserve Program, Braden designs the wetlands for them so they can meet water-quality standards. Last year, he planned a wetlands area for Northern Ohio University, including four pool areas on about 20 acres of wetlands. The land had been marginal farmland and was converted to provide a wetland study area for the college biology department.

Braden used Site Design to plan the work for the contractor and also to develop a very accurate material list and bid sheet. “That capability is a huge asset,” he notes. After working the design, Braden gave the layout points to the contractor with a total station, supplying the cut-and-fill measurements. After construction, he performed checks by surveying the area and dumping the data into the machine, producing a layover to see how accurate it was to the original plan. The process is fully automated with no guesswork, according to Braden.

The wetlands project was barely finished when the area was hit by a 50-year storm event. “It was the most dramatic change of landscape I’ve ever seen,” Braden says. The wetlands filled in a couple of weeks following the storm and now hundreds of waterfowl make it their home.

River Restoration in Pennsylvania

Aquatic Resource Restoration Company of Seven Valleys, PA, recently joined forces with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the York Water Company to save South Branch Codorus Creek in southern York County, PA. Both east and west branches of the creek suffered from lack of vegetation and historic straightening. Seven-foot-high banks were releasing significant amounts of sediment into the creek.

The project, which involved design and construction of 1,600 feet of stream restoration, was the second phase of the Izaak Walton League’s multiphased watershed restoration project, funded through EPA’s Section 319 Grant program.

Josh Lincoln of Aquatic Resource Restoration Company uses RIVERMorph software for natural channel design. “We use RIVERMorph on all our designs,” says Lincoln, vice president of design services for the company. Collected survey data from an endangered stream are loaded into the RIVERMorph database and compared to a reference stream that is stable. By comparing cross sections, the planner can see what needs to be done to bring the endangered stream into line with the stable one.

The initial phase of the project included a comprehensive fluvial geomorphic watershed assessment of the South Branch Codorus Creek to prioritize restoration activities using a watershed approach. RIVERMorph software was used to calculate dimensionless ratios from a reference reach located in the watershed. These ratios were then used to determine the proposed hydraulic dimensions and channel pattern.  Pebble count and bar sample data collected from the project site were entered into RIVERMorph to calculate stream competency for the proposed channel. 

RIVERMorph of Louisville, KY, provides integrated software for river-restoration and channel-building projects, including a database and a visual depiction of the river, making it useful for all skill levels of operators. The intuitive toolbar and tabbed forms provide user-friendly access. A pocket version became available in spring 2004.

System requirements include Intel Pentium processor, 130 megabytes of hard drive space, 64 megabytes of RAM, a CD or DVD drive, and an operating system of Windows 98 and newer. RIVERMorph has a large section of FAQs online as well as tech support.

On the Codorus Creek project, data were collected with total stations and imported into the RIVERMorph system. Lincoln notes that one big benefit is the pattern-adapt format; information is available in one place and in one format. Once the information is in place, the designer can use a slider feature to go through a range of variables. Results from the change of one variable will often “jump out at you,” he says, and the design phase can be accomplished quickly.

Salmon Habitat in Washington

On the opposite side of the country, a nonprofit organization is restoring streams and improving salmon habitat. Fish First carries out a diverse program of stream restoration with governmental grants and volunteers.

The main area for stream restoration by Fish First has been the north and south branches of Washington State’s Lewis River, along with streams that drain into it. Three endangered or threatened species spawn in this area: Chinook and chum salmon and steelhead.

Richard Dyrland, board member of Fish First and semi-retired hydrologist, explains that most of the streams have been heavily altered by logging, blowing out of slash dams, and erosion. Streams are carrying heavy loads of sediment, temperatures have risen, and shear stresses have increased. All of this destroys the fish habitat.

Fish First received the first permit from the National Marine Fishery Service to restore and monitor these streams. A citizen donated a 14,000-acre tree farm, so large trees are available for streambank stabilization.

Using RIVERMorph software, Dyrland analyzes a stream and determines what is out of balance for each reach. Then volunteers pitch in to make adjustments. As they work, Dyrland continues to analyze. He notes that sometimes they make overnight adjustments when something is not working correctly or because the dynamics have been changed by previous work. The quick turnaround allowed by the software is helpful, and the software includes parameters down to even the size and shape of gravel in the stream and what part of the stream is moving and what isn’t. “We pretty much use the whole package,” Dyrland says.

Using total stations, Fish First workers survey the stream and then analyze it using RIVERmorph. Dyrland then plans the changes, implements them with volunteer help, and reanalyzes the results. They take the whole watershed view and focus it down to a finite stream reach at a time. Using the software is much like going to the doctor and getting a prescription, according to Dyrland. Time constraints add to the pressure of the work. The spawning season is only a few months in length.

Results have been dramatic. Eight years ago, experts thought one stream was essentially dead. Only 35 to 37 salmon were counted in a season. “I knew the restoration could work,” Dyrland says. Fish First volunteers have transformed 8 miles of the stream, and the fish count has been steadily increasing each year. Last year, the count was 32,000 salmon in that stream.


NRCS engineer Gabriel Lucero of Montrose, CO, works on salinity control projects to counteract the effects of the area’s particular geology, which includes banks of shale with layers of salt. The salts seep into earthen irrigation ditches and eventually into streams that feed the Colorado River. To decrease the salinity, the federal government offers discounts to farmers to install pipelines or concrete-lined ditches, and NRCS handles the design.

Each year, the Montrose NRCS designs about 120,000 feet of pipeline, using Eagle Point software’s Profile module to plot elevation and stations. Data are downloaded into an HP Data Collection device that stores the points for leveling. Lucero says they set up a node library with S on the stakes layer and G on the ground layer. The process is very direct, and even though those performing the work are not professional surveyors, they can accomplish a lot. The office began using the software in 1992. “We wanted something as easy as possible to use and understand,” he comments.

The success of the salinity project can be seen in the fact that even during the past years of drought, no land has had to be set aside because of lack of water in the area. Stopping the seepage in the earthen ditches has saved enough water for even drought times. About 1,600 tons of salt have been prevented from entering the watershed.

Lucero says that every year the NRCS office has been able to increase production with fewer people on staff, partly because of the speed and flexibility of the software. He handles the training for the office as well as developing streamlined checklists for use of the software.

Another improvement in Colorado is the networking of licenses. At one time, the Montrose NRCS office had three software licenses, and if that office wasn’t using the software, it was not available to anyone else. Now the state has secured many licenses and they are available statewide. Lucero says that so far the system has been working well. Eagle Point plans to hold a training session in Colorado soon, so even more people will be up to speed on using the software for the applications needed in the area.

Going 3D

Jason Gregory, senior geographic information system (GIS) analyst for Greystone Consultants, recently worked on a visualization project to be added to a proposal for a project involving water distribution tunnels in California. With a limited budget and time, Gregory used World Construction Set 6.0 from 3D Nature to present two alternative sites in three dimensions.

The Arvada, CO, software company provides visualization software for all types of uses. Its products are widely used by video game designers for their realistic images and allow users to input information and create 3D images that can be changed and manipulated easily.

For the proposal, Gregory took 10-meter digital elevation models (DEMs) and blended them together with black-and-white aerial photos from the US Geological Survey. The lines were georeferenced vectors from a GIS and digitized. The software conforms the vectors to the topography as though they are stuck to the terrain. One advantage to this system is that the information is easily available and free or very low cost; DEMs and some aerial photos are free.

For this project, Gregory imported a file into ARCView to label portals and valves, then put the rendering into Microsoft PowerPoint for the presentation. The advantage of 3D pictures is that people relate to them better, according to Gregory. “Every time I’ve used it, people just love it.” The software allows Gregory to show the project from any angle and he can show change over time.

World Construction Set allows the user to drag and drop features into the project and to place many items with just a click. Visuals such as houses will automatically curve along a road, and such decorative things as clouds and trees can be added with just a click. World Construction Set runs on a Pentium II or later processor with 256 megabytes of RAM, 1 gigabyte of free disk space, an OpenGL video card, and Windows 98 or higher. The software can use many different data formats and the results can be put into many different types of software, such as PowerPoint for presentation purposes.

Another project for Greystone Consultants involves mine reclamation and stockpile development. A large mine in New Mexico is designing a new stockpile area and, of course, must obey drainage regulations. By inputting data into World Construction Set, Gregory is able to show where runoff will go and how the stockpile will change over time. The software has been especially useful for illustrative purposes at public hearings. People not only hear how the mine area will look but can see actual renderings.