Water Monitoring Project Makes Savannah a World Leader

Staff Report From Savannah CEO

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

A few years ago there existed only one gauge in Georgia that monitored tide levels and that was at Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River. Now Georgia is home to more than 40 sensors that keep track of the rise and fall of sea levels in Savannah and Chatham County. According to one expert, thanks to the Smart Sea Level Sensors partnership program, Georgia now has the highest density of water monitoring sensors anywhere in the world.

The smart sea level sensor project is a partnership between the city of Savannah, Chatham County Emergency Management and Georgia Tech that started approximately two years ago with a $100,000 grant.

During the past 18 months, 42 sensors have been installed around bridges, coastal areas prone to flooding, docks, marinas and at some private sites, according to Russell J. Clark, director of Mobile Technology & IoT Programs at Georgia Tech Savannah. Thirty additional sensors are expected to be installed this year.

Clark, who is also co-director of Georgia Tech’s Research Network Operations Center, explained that the sensors have wireless technology, are online all the time and transmit water level readings every five minutes. The data is stored in the virtual cloud and from that information programs can determine trends and conduct analytics. Chatham County Emergency Management officials monitor the information routinely and share it with Savannah officials.

“We are able to look at all the data and give alerts when a location’s water is rising or about to flood,” Clark said.

Nick Deffley, Savannah’s director of environmental services and sustainability, said he considers the program, which has advanced from its initial one-year pilot program stage, a success based on several factors.
“Our goal is to provide real-time information about water levels across Chatham County to aid in emergency planning and response during episodes of flooding associated with storms, king tides and other environmental events,” states the project’s website. “The sea level data also provide a unique and important dataset to aid scientists, engineers and regional planners in quantifying the short- and long-term risks associated with continued sea level rise.”

The information can be extremely useful in forecasting areas that will flood from weather phenomena such as storms or hurricanes. Clark and Deffley agree that it’s valuable to be able to pinpoint specific threatened areas and alert people in those areas as to what to expect and when to evacuate.

Randall Mathews, senior emergency management coordinator for Chatham County, said the project’s impact is multi-faceted.“This project is enhancing our ability to understand impacts at the hyper-local level from tropical cyclone impacts, high tides and sea level rise. With an enhanced understanding of this, we can prioritize hazard mitigation projects to help protect our citizens and the infrastructure systems,” said Mathews. “We can also use these tools to better understand vulnerable areas of development. This means that as governments are investing taxpayer money into the community to build infrastructure systems and things of that nature, we have more precise data to inform our decision-making process.”

Five Georgia Tech departments are involved in the project in a variety of ways—ranging from day-to-day co-managing, installation, design, civil engineering, molding, planning and development.

“Georgia Tech is all in,” said Clark, adding that the project is viewed as a “long-term” and “indefinite” effort.

Mathews said he appreciates the collaboration with Georgia Tech. “This project is the first project I have worked on where we tapped into the great resources, knowledge and expertise of the university system,” he said. “The project team has a very diverse background, so being able to look at the problems and solutions from different points of view has truly made this project unique.”

Officials are seeking ways for other entities to eventually take over the project and make it sustainable on a larger scale. Mathews said it could benefit many other communities.

“The technology and tools developed by this project are cutting-edge,” said Mathews. “And most importantly, this is a solution that can be scalable for other communities across the world. Chatham County has one of the most-dense networks of water monitoring gauges in the country now, which can better help us understand the impacts from Mother Nature, both in the present and future. Data drives decisions, and we have a whole lot of data.”

Georgia Tech is also working with the city of Johns Creek to start a similar smart sensor pilot program, Clark said. He also shared that discussions are underway and proposals are in the works to expand smart sea level sensors to areas such as the city of Brunswick, Camden County as well as Charleston, South Carolina.

“The model gets better the more data we have,” he said.