Assiniboine Watershed Modeling Project Involving IBM Gets $1.1 Million in Federal Funding


The federal government is investing $1.1 million in developing a hydrological model for the Assiniboine River Basin, which spans more than 160,000 square kilometres of western Manitoba, eastern Saskatchewan and northwestern North Dakota.

The project, led by the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA), involves IBM, Aquanty Inc. (a University of Waterloo spinoff company that specializes in simulating water movement), the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative, as well as other agricultural, academic and government partners.

“Extreme weather events have created many challenges for Prairie farmers in recent years. We’re committed to working together with the agriculture sector to equip farmers with the tools they need to proactively manage business risks such as these,” explained federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, announcing the federal funding on Monday.

The Assiniboine River Basin (courtesy ARBI)
The Assiniboine River Basin (courtesy ARBI)

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is hoping the model will help reduce the need for landowner compensation in the future, notes Henry Nelson, project manager and vice-chair of the MFGA.

“Between flooding and droughts, there were a lot of AgriRecovery and disaster payments paid out in recent years as a result of water, either the lack of or too much, and so to get a better handle on it, they have invested this kind of money in the project to try and find out ways of better management water,” he says.

Initially, Nelson explains, the model will be used to answer questions about the impact of infrastructure changes and land use on water movement. MFGA’s primary interest lies in determining the role forages can have in mitigating water-related problems.

“Ultimately we will be able to do nutrient movement studies in the basin, study the impact of different types of drainage, water quality and so on,” he says.

For farmers in the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Souris river sub-basins, Nelson says the hydrological model “will help them understand the impact of different land use, not only on their land, but down the road, and as importantly, it will provide policy-makers with information so they can make informed decisions on infrastructure needs and positive land management regimes for water management within the basin.”

The model could potentially be used to assess the downstream impact on farmland caused by the Manitoba government operating the Shellmouth Dam, says Nelson.

Insurance companies are also interested, he notes, because the model could provide the level of predictability that reinsurers require to provide overland flooding insurance.

Aquanty’s simulation platform, known as HydroGeoSphere, will utilize an expected 3 million datapoints in the first phase. The outcomes will be projected from detailed research conducted in the 5,000-7,000 square kilometre Birdtail River watershed, explains Nelson.

“The reason (this model) hasn’t been utilized to any great extent prior to this is we did not have the computing capacity to handle it,” he says, noting that’s why IBM is involved.

“IBM has come on in this project in full force. They’re working with us and Aquanty to ingest the soils information, the topography information, ground water and surface moisture, all that information…they’re also building dashboards for multiple users to access or run queries on the model.”

In addition to AAFC’s $1.1 million, the Manitoba government is a secondary funding partner for the project.

The funding announced Monday will expire at the end of March 2018, at which time Nelson says they expect to have the base hydrological model built.


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