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Having a better understanding of how streams flow in the spring will go great lengths towards protecting the residents who live below those streams during flooding season, and progress is being made to do just that.

Kittitas County Public Works is working to install two types of stream monitoring technology along Naneum Creek, with the first of the two types being installed Friday. While one is more traditional, the other is a pilot project that if successful could prove beneficial as the county plans to place more of the devices along other streams in both Upper and Lower County.

Kittitas County Water Resource Program Manager Arden Thomas said the project began in 2017 with the Naneum Wilson Cherry Assessment, resulting in the prioritization of stream monitoring by the Kittitas County Flood Control Zone District Advisory Committee in 2019. She said the intent of the assessment was to identify flooding issues in the Wilson, Naneum and Cherry Creek watersheds and identify potential habitat improvement areas.

“It’s often good to look at these things together,” Thomas said. “That planning process really identified that flows are complex in this area, in that we have what is called an alluvial fan. Another way to look at is that in this area, you don’t have one single channel. You have all these distributary channels, and the reality is that flows going down each channel changes over time, especially because we see a lot of sediment and wood deposition. That just changes the course of where water flows.”

Although the Department of Ecology, Bureau of Reclamation and the United States Geological Survey already have stream gauges in the county, Thomas said they are primarily focused on larger rivers to monitor summer flows.

“We don’t have good data for a lot of our streams where we’re specifically concerned about flooding,” she said.

FOCUS POINTS

Along with Naneum, Wilson and Cherry Creeks, Thomas said other focus points include Mercer and Whiskey creeks, as well as Manastash and Taneum creeks in Lower County and Crystal Creek in Upper County.

“None of these locations have data associated with them in terms of what flows would be over time,” she said. “There’s a few implications for that. One is that we just don’t have real-time information about what’s going on, and we can’t communicate that to the public which is an objective that we have. Another thing is that when we are looking at flood risk, something really important to understand is how big of flows can we reasonably expect to see. The best source of information for that is to have long term data about what those flows have actually been, and when we don’t have those studies, it’s not going to be as accurate.”

As the data begins coming in from the new monitoring station, Thomas said they can use the data to combine with flood models to create maps that show what areas are at danger of flooding when the stream is at various heights.

“That’s exciting to me, because a lot of communicating about flood risk involves only saying where we’ll expect flooding to occur during a 100-year event,” she said. “We’re going to be able to provide a lot more information about what areas we see flooding in every other year, or every 10 years. We’ll be able to understand and communicate more effectively about areas at the most risk of flooding.”

Thomas said a major goal of understanding flooding patterns is to help the county make informed decisions about what areas should and should not be developed in the future.

“If we have actual streamflow data when we do these flood studies, then we have good information to prove what the models are saying and make sure that getting it right when we do the analysis,” she said.

GAME-CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

Although a traditional monitoring system is also being installed at the location on Naneum Creek, Thomas said the county is working with a Snoqualmie Valley-based company called ToltHawk to pilot one of their monitoring devices at the location. Although the company has installed devices all over the country, she said Kittitas County offers unique conditions that can test the device.

“We have colder temperatures and stream icing conditions, especially on Naneum Creek,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for them to see how their system compares to a more standard approach.”

Thomas sees many benefits in the new technology if it proves to stand up to the test of conditions in Kittitas County. The device is much smaller than the traditional systems and can mount directly to the bridge, using wireless sonar technology to take measurements. The traditional technology requires cables running from the river to a box mounted along the stream to relay measurements.

“We don’t have all of that complexity with this system,” she said. “It’s just literally a tube with all the good stuff inside.”

The other major benefit to the new technology is the cost. Thomas said if the system works well, it will allow the county to roll out more monitoring devices along other watersheds within the county in a shorter period of time.

“We’re excited about that possibility,” she said.

A DREAM BORN FROM NECESSITY

ToltHawk President Nayab Khan developed and tested the new stream monitoring technology in and around his home in the Snoqualmie Valley after seeing the massive floods that inundate the valley on almost a yearly basis.

“I have a little blueberry farm over here,” he said. “The first year I bought the farm, it flooded, and I lost my tractor. I started thinking about what we could do for the area.”

Khan began working with the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance to develop the technology, finding that traditional measurement systems were quickly becoming outdated.

“The previous technology was eight or 10 years old,” he said. “In the technology world, that’s basically the difference between stone age and the modern age. That’s how rapidly things improve. Our gauges are not about 20 times smaller, they’re also about 20 times cheaper.”

Along with minimal maintenance, the devices can last up to a year with only 40 hours of sunlight received by a small solar cap on the top of the monitor.

“Those are the vast improvements in technology that allow it to go from what used to be a microwave-size package to one much smaller,” Khan said.

Although the primary goal was to use the technology for flooding, Khan said the device also gained traction in the agricultural community as a way to monitor irrigation systems. The devices are hard at work in various locations in the Midwest and West Coast.

“There’s a whole slew of things it can now do,” he said. “Based on what the customer wants, we can add these plug and play sensors to it. People use it in all sorts of applications, but our primary application has been in water level sensing.”

Amidst the growth in interest of the ToltHawk device, Khan said the company remains family-run, with Snoqualmie Valley residents helping to assemble and prepare the devices for distribution. Although the cost remains significantly less than traditional devices, he said his company works with municipalities to seek grant funding if needed to suit their local plans. He said the success of the devices has been something both he and his family can be proud of.

“As an engineer, I love seeing the product being used to solve these problems,” he said. “Saving property, and possibly saving lives in some instances. For me and my family, it’s just a rewarding experience.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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