Public Works Trending Technologies Streamline Storm Water Management

April 8, 2022

Clearer communication — within departments and with the public — is a common theme


Trends come and go, but what ideas become popular (and for how long) speak to what concerns are most pressing for public works professionals. That’s why the American Public Works Association surveys members on what technologies will garner the most interest each year. The top five technology trends for 2022, released in January, brings back a few familiar themes from years past.

Asking members what they’re thinking about helps the APWA keep educational resources relevant, said Laura Kroeger, P.E., an APWA board of directors member and executive director for the Mile High Flood District in Colorado. Of the five technologies APWA members chose, three in particular will sound familiar to storm water professionals evaluating through how their workplace operates.

Asset Management

Asset management — or maximizing the benefit of a resource while minimizing the risks and costs of ownership — is a longstanding component of storm water management, Kroeger said. What makes the strategy relevant today is how technology can facilitate those goals as workforces change. 

“What's changed over the years, especially with technology, is that we did that so much before with the institutional knowledge of people,” Kroeger said. 

Engineers or storm water professionals who work at the same place for a few decades accumulate a lot of detailed knowledge about the intricacies of the job, but that length of a career with one institution is increasingly rare. Incorporating technology into other parts of storm water management can make the jobs less reliant on the learning that comes with years in a single location. Using drones to fly over and photograph stream conditions, for example, provides the Mile High Flood District with objective feedback over an entire region instead of relying on individuals trained to look for specific details making dedicated trips, Kroeger said.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) 

Constructing and maintaining low-cost, high-functioning storm water systems involves considerations that managers are likely familiar with. For example, assessing how a stream would handle runoff means weighing factors like local geomorphology or historical flooding, Kroeger says. GIS tracking can provide another datasource that departments might be less familiar with: How residents interact with storm water infrastructure.

With a GIS database and resulting maps, management can see how people use local infrastructure and design elements to match what people want. The Mile High Flood District has seen the benefits of GIS information play out in more urban areas, where water management spaces double as outdoor recreation areas. GIS data shows where trail access is sparse and can guide the district to adding another path, or it can indicate where an area is too hot. In response, the district could weigh planting trees and reducing pavement in a way that would benefit a local stream. Though tracts of land are meant for flood management purposes, “[it’s] a really low percentage of the time that we actually need the system for that,” Kroeger pointed out. 

When facilities better serve residents on a typical no-flooding day, people become more amenable to similar dual-purpose infrastructure appearing elsewhere. These and other potential uses for GIS reporting have held industry interest for a while — the technology has appeared on the top five trending list in three of the last five years.

RELATED: Machine Learning & Impervious Surfaces: Where GIS Technology Meets the Road

Self-monitoring and Reporting (SMART) Technologies

The third trending technology of 2022 comes from desires to better communicate within public works departments and between the agencies and residents. For storm water professionals, tapping into technology that relays information could be particularly appealing when it comes to emergencies. 

Internally, departments can install sensors that report how much and how fast water is moving through systems, values that help estimate potential flood risks, Kroeger said. And when flood districts have warnings to share with the public — or vice versa — web-based platforms can help. The Mile High Flood District has found that residents are more likely to engage with local government sites than those of the flood district’s, so the department relays information about, for example, potential street flooding to city government communications teams while any message a resident sends to local government sites about storm water-related complaints or observations get forwarded automatically to the district. 

Though self-monitoring and reporting tactics might not always involve new technology, Kroeger suspects that public works professionals are interested in the topic because they want to hear how other departments across the nation have employed the same tools. If communication strategies work for one area, then maybe there are some tips or techniques other storm water teams can adopt for their residents, too.

“All this information is helping us collect and understand data so that we can maybe see impacts of climate change over time and [find] ways that we can anticipate or help mitigate some of that,” Kroeger said. 

Whether an agency is thinking about translating warnings to residents or tracking progress on environmental goals, knowing what other technologies public works professionals are thinking about helps professionals manage their tasks, Kroeger said.

 “They are a useful tool for us in public works that are wearing a lot of hats.”

About the Author

Leslie Nemo