When It Rains ...

Florida's Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District uses telemetry to monitor storm water.

by / February 4, 2004
In Palm Beach County, Fla., innovative ideas for storm water management systems surfaced in the early '90s, when the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District (Northern) faced growth and development within its jurisdiction. Managers of the special district had to come up with a way to make their storm water systems more efficient without increasing staff or budget.

The Florida Legislature created Northern as an independent special district in 1959 in order to provide water management and infrastructure services for properties within its current 128 square-mile jurisdiction. Northern's goal is to provide innovative design, management and oversight of water resource management systems.

Northern provides a wide range of services to its constituents, including:

  • Water quality control
  • Drought protection
  • Flood control
  • Preserve maintenance
  • Maintenance of canals, waterways and lakes

    Growth and the Development of the Telemetry System
    "We were planning for the future in terms of our needs for the area, and were looking at new ways of managing our systems," said O'Neal Bardin Jr., executive director of Northern. "At the time, there weren't effective storm water systems available, so we looked for alternatives."

    During the research process, Northern met with several different entities, including the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and other municipal utility operations. There was one common denominator -- the use of telemetry systems for remotely monitoring activity. However, the technology wasn't being used for storm water management. It was being utilized for wastewater. "We were the first to ask the manufacturer to design a telemetry system to monitor storm water," Bardin said. The manufacturer was Data Flow Systems based in Melbourne, Fla.

    The system Northern began with initially cost approximately $50,000. The Tac II Telemetry System was placed in one specific unit of development and consisted of four remote telemetry units and one central telemetry unit. Telemetry works by measuring and communicating data through wireless radio signals from remote sources to receiving stations. Northern's system runs through 59 wireless radio signals. It uses programmable logic controllers for monitoring telemetry stations throughout Northern's jurisdiction, which covers 128 square miles of Palm Beach County. Licensing is required through the Federal Communications Commission. The system can monitor a total of 180 different points within a single pump station. A point can be a proximity switch for a door, for example.

    With the advent of the telemetry system, Northern had expanded its capacity and in doing so, greatly decreased its response time to any situation requiring attention, which could be anything from blockage in a drainage system to rising water levels due to a rainstorm.

    An operations staff of six people can handle all aspects of monitoring, even from their homes. "Especially during hurricane season, it is helpful to be able to monitor our systems from home," said Bobby Polk, operations manager.

    The Hyper Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Server Telemetry System has improved the efficiency of Northern's storm water management systems in the following ways:

  • Fifty-nine different sites are monitored at once from a remote central location.
  • Reaction time to an event has improved by 50 percent.
  • The system actually monitors itself and is able to dial on-call staff via computer modem for any emergency alert during evening or weekend hours.
  • It allows for remote control of emergency operable gates and canal water levels.
  • Security is also monitored at all sites, especially pump stations.

    Prior to a storm, the operations team can begin monitoring water elevations to determine whether there is a need to lower or "draw down" the levels to prevent flooding.

    The Operations Pilot Program
    As Northern mastered the telemetry system, its reputation grew as a water control district that could manage
  • its jurisdiction efficiently. Northern entered into a pilot program to work extensively with SFWMD over a three-year period, which ends in March 2004. The result will be the ability to open and close floodgates as needed. The pilot allows Northern's operations staff to respond faster to any emergency or storm event. Quick response is crucial in Florida because of the number of unpredictable storms that may cause flooding.

    The pilot project has helped everyone involved understand the impact of opening a floodgate on neighboring areas in other jurisdictions. Northern will complete the pilot program then begin the permit process that may allow for a more customer service-oriented response to any flooding or emergency situation within a defined area of its jurisdiction.

    "There is no way to avoid flooding in South Florida," said Tommy Strowd, the former operations director who helped oversee the project for SFWMD. "This project significantly reduces the possibility that an operational problem will worsen a flooding situation."

    Susan Nefzger is the community information specialist for the Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District.
    Susan Nefzger Contributing Writer