Source of satisfaction

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Dr Phillip Jordan talks about his journey with Source Catchments.

Catchment managers must forecast the quantity and quality of available water resources in catchments subject to bushfires, changing climatic conditions, diverse water management approaches and varied land use activities. The work is complicated by the interactions between these physical drivers on the catchments and by the expectations of the people that live and work in those catchments they will continue to serve both their needs and the needs of the ecosystems. Catchment managers therefore need objective scientific evidence that the plans they are implementing will achieve great outcomes for their catchments and the communities that they support.

Still when Senior Hydrologist Dr Phillip Jordan teamed up with eWater as a project leader five years ago,  the only way to do such work was to call on – and somehow manually integrate - the number-crunching capabilities of a range of different complex computer models. Such work didn’t exactly require guesswork, but certainly entailed a degree of ‘seat-of-the pants’ navigation.

Jordan became the product development leader of a 40-person team of water managers, consultants and scientists who set out to address the problem.

The work has been complex, demanding, deeply satisfying and ultimately highly successful. The fruit of that labour-of-love is Source Catchments, once known as WaterCAST, eWater’s integrated water quanity and quality model.

“One of the reasons Source Catchments has been so successful is because it has been tested and evolved in so many applications,” Jordan says. “Its been used to inform the process in each of those catchments according to what happens in the catchment, and what happens in the landscape: to how water quality and quantity objectives are managed  in each of those catchments.”

A Senior Hydrologist with Sinclair Knight Merz with 15 years of experience in hydrology and water resources engineering in government, consulting and research organisations, Jordan was recruited along with other eWater partner members to develop an integrated whole-of-catchment modelling solution. He says he is proud of what he and the team have achieved, given Source Catchments’ importance to the water management industry.

Integration Needed

Catchment managers and other stakeholders made it clear to eWater that, while there were many specific models available, they needed software to assist in integrated management across whole catchments. Their requirements sparked a half-decade long development effort focussed on ease of use and drawing on both latest science and the insights of dozens of catchment managers.

"A key focus of the project was to develop a model – the first in Australia - that worked well at a catchment scale,” Jordan says. “So one of the key demands was integration; another was for a product with a high level of usability and robustness so that people can get up to speed relatively quickly in picking up the model and having it respond in a way that they would expect it too: in an intuitive way.”

Jordan says achieving all that was no trivial matter. It involved balancing a need for mathematical sophistication against requirements that the interface be simple enough to allow any user to pick the software up and run with it, without being overwhelmed by too much complexity upfront.

“That was tricky at times because in some applications partner organisations were inclined to pull you towards mathematically- intensive models that require integration of a lot of data that isn’t always available. I had to keep the team focussed on ease of use coupled with ensuring the results the model produced were reliable for a large catchment scale model. There was always a danger in putting in too much complexity that you might end up with a model that worked very well for a paddock but was unable to produce results that you could trust at a catchment scale. Another risk was that it might not work well in circumstances where you have nowhere near as much data as you might have in a research paddock where you can do a lot of intensive measurement  in tightly controlled conditions.

“Having many different users at different levels of sophistication really helped with that,” he says.

Critical to the effort was the work ofQueensland Department of Environment and Resource Management Senior Hydrologist Dave Waters, who is leading the focus catchment applications. Jordan says Waters has done excellent work with the users who have been trialling the software.

“The trials haveprovided us with a lot of feedback in terms of ways that we can adjust the software to make it more intuitive and easier to use while still doing for them what they need it to do.”

Jordan says the work has been deeply satisfying because the result has been development of an excellent platform for supporting the work of catchment managers focussed on catchment restoration to achieve clean, healthy, living waterways and living streams. Better still, the software is highly robust and reliable even in data poor environments.

“ I’m proud of my role in in bringing a large and diverse team together,” Jordan says. “We’re talking about a team of about 40 people spread across 10 or so different eWater partner organisations, and virtually all of those people only have a part of their time dedicated to the eWater project: many of them are working in other roles within their own host organisations.

And the work is continuing, with the next version slated to include a calibration tool which has Jordan “quite excited.”

“What that means is that people will be able to bring in their recorded flow data, and internally calibrate the model so that the model flows and water quality flows they get out of the model can be matched to the recorded data they have within their catchment.

“The other thing that we’re working on at the moment is the groundwater-surface water interaction model. That will enable a better coupling of the groundwater and surface water processes in upland catchments,” he says.