Cockrell School of Engineering develops new water infrastructure center

AddThis

From flooding to storm pollution to aging water infrastructure systems, Austin has a lot of water problems. UT officials hope a new center will help. 

In a national call to action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Acency, the Cockrell School of Engineering earned a $3.9 million grant to develop the Center for Infrastructure Modeling and Management. The center will focus on improving the water infrastructure in Austin, solving problems such as pollution, and engaging in community outreach.

The Center will collaborate with Urban Watersheds Research Institute a non-profit organization in Colorado, to make improvements on two EPA-developed global models that address common urban water issues: EPANET and Storm Water Management. 

A software that models water distribution piping systems, EPANET focuses on pollution in the water pipeline, targeting problems such as water contamination that happened in Flint, Michigan. The Storm Water Management model, a water quality simulator used for planning, works on managing floods and water runoffs, which pose a huge problem in Austin and numerous metropolitan cities, said Ben Urbonas, UWRI president. 

“The purpose [of the center] is to improve the functionality of the models to make it easier for engineers to apply the models,” Urbonas said. 

According to Ben Hodges, associate professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and co-leader of the Center, the center will reach out to UT students and Austin community for collaboration. 

Hodges said the system will provide a web portal so people can download the models at home and troubleshoot the system. According to Hodges, this open-source method and ease of access will allow professors to incorporate the models into their curriculum. The Center also plans to host a hackathon to further engage the interested community while simultaneously improving the model.

“We’re hoping students who get interested in the models will say, ‘Ah! The model is missing a particular type of green infrastructure, like a roofing system’ and then they can get into the code and think about how to make that happen,” Hodges said.

The process is split into two components: the code and its application. Application of the code includes gathering landscaping information about the city, such as the sewer system and storm drains. Engineers focus on the code’s application, whereas the Center focuses on the underlying code so they can run on UT’s supercomputers or on cloud services, like Amazon. 

“Here is the difference, for example: Someone who writes something in Microsoft Word is using Word, but they’re not modifying Word. They’re just using the application, which is what engineers do with these water models,” Hodges said. “Down at the level of actually changing Word, that’s what we [at the Center] are doing.”

Various water problems drown Austin, including flooding, said Fernanda Leite, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. According to Leite, the issue extends past urban runoff areas, or areas where polluted water flows from urbanized areas into storm drains, and into buildings.

“One of the big takeaways from this research at the Center is integrating these two worlds [of urban runoffs and built environments], which haven’t really been addressed in the past,” Leite said.

The pollution from the storm water runoff stems from the asphalt on roads and discharged oil from cars, Leite said. Rain ultimately drains the pollutants into a larger body of water, such as Waller Creek, which directly cuts through the UT campus.

Flooding further magnifies the issue of pollution, so the pollution prevention plans strive to contain the damage. Floods also destroy building infrastructure because Austin was built based on a different terrain in the past, Leite said.

“The way we build things around our cities changes the way floods occur. For example, the Dell Medical School is being built smack dab in the middle of the plan, so if we have a flood, how does that impact the way we change our buildings?” Leite said.  

Hodges said the Center’s researchers hope to make the program larger and more efficient in the future.

“At the end of the five years, our goal is to have a sustainable center that will keep these models open-source, keep them updating and keep people involved,” Hodges said.