Exploring a novel approach to flood control

While growing up in the historic city of Ayacucho, Peru, Arturo Leon and his friends played in the riachuelo seco (“dry creek”) near his home. If wasn’t always dry, the creek’s flow was shallow and slow moving. But its appearance was deceptive.

During the short rainy season, the meandering creek could turn instantly into a raging torrent, bringing death and destruction to anything in its path. It was common to find dead cows, pigs, and other animals along the creek bed when the waters receded. Human lives also were occasionally lost during flash flooding in Ayacucho’s riachuelo seco.

Leon wanted to understand why flash floods happen and how the water gains momentum. “I was fascinated about how flood waves propagate and why they become so deadly in a short time,” he said. That curiosity and sense of wonder still drive him today.

Exceeding expectations

Leon learned academic rigor from his father, a dedicated teacher and school administrator, and he became an excellent student early on. In fact, he did so well in his elementary and secondary class work that he was ready for college-level study by the time he was 14 years old. At that age, he thought it would be wise to take his mother’s advice, so when she suggested that he pursue civil engineering as a career path, he did. By focusing on hydraulics, he could learn about flash floods.

It was a brave choice in that part of the world at that time. In the early 1990s, Leon said, civil engineering professors tried to keep the field competitive by failing most of their students, which they achieved by not teaching exam material. “Fifty students would start the class and one or two would pass,” he said.

Leon was bright and determined, however, so he worked up to 18 hours a day, most of it in independent study, to obtain his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he said. He was the only civil engineering student to graduate within five years, which is the duration of the bachelor’s degree program in Peru. He earned a B.S. in civil engineering from San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University in Ayacucho in 1996 and then moved on to the National University of Engineering in Lima to earn a master’s degree in hydraulic engineering.

Establishing a reputation

After working in the private sector in Lima for a few years for an American consulting firm, Leon decided to come to the U.S. to deepen his study of hydraulics. He applied to what was then the top-ranked university in hydraulic engineering—the University of Illinois at Champaign. He had already published a book in Spanish that analyzed water intakes in high velocity flows using a complex theory of hydrodynamics.

At the University of Illinois, Leon developed a computer model to analyze the flow dynamics of the three combined sewer systems of Chicago, which consist of more than 120 miles of underground tunnels. “No one knew how these systems behave,” he said. “They were built to control stormwater and sewage, but they would geyser a lot.” His “Illinois Transient Model” helped him to earn a Ph.D. in May 2007. He was asked to stay in a post-doctoral capacity to continue improving the model, which has been applied with success in several other cities in the U.S., New Zealand, Switzerland, France, and Mexico.

Building a water resources research program

When Leon learned about an opportunity to build a research program at Oregon State University, he was ready to tackle the challenge. Since his arrival in Jan. 2011, he has come full circle, indulging his childhood interest in how rivers work by developing a flood control framework.

“The need to upgrade flood control strategies has never been more urgent,” he said. “River flooding is a recurrent threat that has a vast cost in terms of human suffering, economic losses associated with damage to infrastructure, loss of business, and the cost of insurance claims. As a recent example, during November and December of 2011, about six hundred human lives were lost due to flooding in Thailand.”

What is needed, he said, is a reliable and intelligent decision-making framework that protects lives and infrastructure. He and his research team are developing a computationally fast, robust computer model called “OSU–Rivers” that will transform the current practices for flood control in regulated river systems, allowing for the transition from near-passive systems to intelligent automated systems that allow for controlled flooding to minimize loss.

“This system could be applied to most rivers in the U.S. and worldwide,” he said. Plans for an on-the-ground testing facility are in the works at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory on campus.

--Marie Oliver

Published Date: 
Monday, December 5, 2011