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Unique geospatial modeling tools forecast Elbow River flow to 2070

New system sees how land use, climate change and stakeholders’ engagement could change watersheds
April 29, 2014
More than 65 people saw a demonstration of the Elbow River watershed integrated modeling system at a University of Calgary workshop. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

More than 65 people saw a demonstration of the Elbow River watershed integrated modeling system at a University of Calgary workshop. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Researchers in the Schulich School of Engineering are getting a lot of interest with their integrated modeling system that predicts what the Elbow River watershed could look like in the coming decades, given different scenarios around land use, climate change, and land development. 

The system, which was introduced at a workshop last week, simulates the frequency and magnitude of extreme events in the watershed up to 2070. The system suggests the average annual streamflow could decrease while the peak flow may significantly increase due to changes in climate and land use.

“There is a shift in peak flow from late spring/early summer to late winter/early spring in the 2050s,” says Danielle Marceau, professor of Geomatics engineering and Chair in GIS and Environmental Modelling at the Schulich School of Engineering. “These conditions increase the risk of spring flooding but they also threaten water availability, particularly in the summer when the water demand is high.”

Marceau and her team’s integrated geospatial modelling system incorporates a land-use cellular automata (CA), a physically-based distributed hydrological model (MIKE SHE/MIKE 11), and an agent-based model (ABM). Together, they simulate different scenarios of land-use change, assess how those changes impact the hydrology, estimate the influence of climate variability, and simulate stakeholders’ negotiation regarding land development scenarios in the watershed.

As well as predicting droughts and floods, the system helps stakeholders evaluate different development scenarios by investigating alternatives in a systematic manner and identifying the one that satisfies all stakeholders to some degree. More than 65 people saw a demo of the system at a workshop last week and Marceau says both government and corporate representatives are interested in learning more.

“This modeling system represents a unique and comprehensive tool that facilitates stakeholders’ participation and guides decision-making,” says Marceau. “It acts as a virtual laboratory in which the stakeholders gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives to come to a mutual agreement.”

The system can be adapted to investigate other watersheds and can simulate a wide range of land-use scenarios from deforestation to urbanization while including the impact of several climate change scenarios.  

The Elbow River, which provides drinking water to about half of Calgary, is prone to flooding and has caused extensive damages twice in the last decade. “Understanding the hydrological regime of this watershed and its possible future evolution is crucial,” says Marceau.