Floodplain Analysis as Football

football field

I was watching the Super Bowl a couple weeks ago and was struck by how the referees spot the football after each play and how it’s really an approximation or “best guess” of where the football actually progressed to.  This approximation suddenly becomes an exact science when the chains are brought onto the field to measure weather a team moved the ball far enough to get the first down.  The approximation is now measured in mere inches, but the reality is that the placement of the football was probably plus or minus 6 inches to 1 foot depending on the referees view of the play; viewing angle, number of players in the way, and whether the referee saw when the players body made contact with the ground.

As I watched and thought about this, I realized the similarity to what we do in floodplain management.  The spotting of the football is very similar to hydrology.  Hydrology is not an exact science.  Rainfall and runoff response is a complex interaction between water, the ground, the topography of a drainage basin, and the infrastructure already constructed.  Not only that, the chances of nature actually replicating the design storm used to analyze peak stream flows is highly unlikely.  It doesn’t mean that the hydrologic analysis engineers perform isn’t a good starting point for evaluating floodplain boundaries or sizing infrastructure, but it remains an approximation.

The irony of all of this is how closely we evaluate hydraulics (the measuring chain) when the hydrology is really only an approximation.  When we evaluate floodplain hydraulics we often measure impacts not only to the tenth of a foot, but all the way down to one hundredth of a foot.  Although it’s never discussed, this measurement is absurd in light of the accuracy of the hydrologic analysis.  As engineers we often have this conversation with one another, but regulations remain that measure impacts to mere fractions of a foot.

While I don’t anticipate floodplain regulations changing in light of this truth, I think it at least reminds us as floodplain managers to have perspective on the analysis we’re reviewing, evaluating, or explaining to the public.  Our end goal is to protect the life and safety of the public.  Conservative hydrologic analysis is a tool we have in our toolkit to achieve this goal.  Tedious hydraulics that evaluate impacts to one hundredth of a foot is probably less of a tool in achieving that goal and really the result of how precise the modeling software we use measures the results of our hydraulic backwater analysis.  However, in the end both the hydrology (spotting of the football) and the hydraulics (the measuring chain) work together to preserve life and safety as well as the natural and beneficial functions of our stream.

Planning, Analysis, Design…Who Are You?

Engineering Skillset Circle Japanese Garden Color Scheme

A deeper look into the profession of stormwater and floodplain management engineering.

Who are you?

If someone asked you, “Who are you? Are you a planner, an analyst, or a designer?” what answer would you give? Do any one of those items describe who you fully are or are you really a combination of all three? As individuals we are highly complex beings. One of the more regularly used personality tests, the Meyers-Briggs, provides four different categories that combine to provide a loose definition of an individual’s personality. In that test there are four high level categories, one for attitude (introvert/extrovert), two for psychological function (intuitive/sensing and thinking/feelilng) and one for lifestyle (judging/perceiving). In all, there are up to 16 combinations/personality types. And although you can identify your personality type by taking the test, even then it only loosely defines who you are. There are so many everyday experiences and circumstances that define who we are as individuals. Our family, our environment, our education, our experiences, our likes and dislikes, and so many intangibles define who we are.

So back to the question at hand, who are you as an engineer? Can any one category define who you are? I think most of you reading this would say, “I’m not just one of those three things. My skill set and experience transcends categories.” But what are the skills necessary to plan, to analyze, or to design? How many of the skills overlap? And which skills make you a better planner, designer, or analyst?

A career as an engineer

One of my college professors always had us break down a concept with three definitions; theoretical, operational, and extensional. For example, in looking at open channel hydraulics and normal depth flow, the theoretical definition may be Manning’s equation itself. The operational definition would be using the equation to solve the problem. The extensional definition would be actually constructing the channel and producing the same physical result (something you can point at). Using this same idea in every day engineering we have our comprehensive knowledge from college which is really our theoretical knowledge. The operational knowledge comes from us using what we know on an almost daily basis to solve problems and calculate solutions. And finally, there are opportunities for some to move to the extensional, actually designing something and having it constructed and operational.

Simplifying it even further for this discussion, we as engineers tend to have our knowledge that we apply to problem solving and the actual practice of applying that knowledge, typically through things like computer models that simulate hydrology or hydraulics or design. The challenge in every day engineering is that there are new tools and modeling options becoming available all the time. So while there may be knowledge, the practice may not always be something that is routinely honed.

I’m a planner?

Of late, I’ve been told the perception of me by some of my peers is that I’m a planner. That perception made me take a step back and evaluate what that meant. My guess is that those individuals had not seen me do design so they felt that design was not a skill that I had developed over the years. The truth is, that yes, I have done a lot of planning work over the last few years. As consulting engineers we take the work we can win and the work given to us. However, to say I’m a planner totally disregards my many years of diverse experience.

Once upon a time I was just a designer…

The reality is, I spent much of the first 10 years (starting in 1994) of my career performing open channel design using CADD to develop construction plans and running HEC-2 (now HEC-RAS) at the time to verify my channel hydraulics or calculating normal depths or hydraulic jump locations. I had the opportunity to develop plan sets, specifications, and design reports and also was able to perform construction observation to see those projects constructed. Someone who knew me in those first 10 years would have said, “my perception of you is that you are a designer” and many of my peers did see me that way. And at that time, that would have been correct because I had never planned before. However, the work we’re doing today doesn’t always tell the story of who we are.

And then I really did learn how to plan

In 2003 I was handed my first planning job which required me to jump into hydrologic modeling, layout of comprehensive basin-wide stormwater infrastructure, my first use of GIS for both modeling and improvement layout, and cost estimating to assist in developing a capital improvement program. What I realized at that time was how beneficial all my years of engineering design were to this effort, i.e. my design experience made me a better planner. Why? Because all of my design experience provided me with a knowledge of how to analyze drainageways and their stability, how to evaluate storm drain systems, how to analyze and layout detention and water quality ponds. and how to interact with other improvement plans such as transportation, recreation, and the environment. Bottom line for me, I couldn’t imagine being a good planner without my design experience.

And all the while I learned how to analyze

And in the midst of both my design and my planning experience I learned how to analyze hydrology and hydraulics using computer simulations, how to use geographic information systems to develop input data and show results. Sometimes I found it beneficial to use more sophisticated tools as they became available such as 2-dimensional hydraulic modeling or most recently 2-dimensional rainfall and runoff. Our careers as engineers is a journey in non-stop learning.

An attempt at defining the differences

In conclusion, in thinking about this question of who we are, I developed the infographic (at the beginning of this blog) to quickly summarize how I see a career in the stormwater and floodplain management field. There will be plenty of missing parts and pieces in this graphic. For example, floodplain management is another category that could easily be added to the figure, but I think this gives the overall idea. From my experience, designers are experts at construction document development and hydraulics. Analysts are generally computer modeler’s who are experts in hydrology, hydraulics, and GIS. And finally planners, who must be able to synthesize all of the data should be experts at all of the categories; hydrology, hydraulics, GIS, and even design because a plan that can’t be implemented is no plan at all.

Have more thoughts? I’d love to hear what you have to say.