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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-21-001    Date:  Autumn 2020
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-21-001
Issue No: Vol. 84 No. 3
Date: Autumn 2020


Collaboration and Visualization

by Eric R. Brown, Laura Girard, and Kornel Kerenyi

Using visual tools and techniques enhances training and fosters understanding and cooperation among team members working in water environments.

A river with a badly eroding bank.
To ensure the most successful outcomes, hydraulic engineers often need to collaborate with planners, environmental specialists, scientists, and other engineering disciplines. This eroding river bank shows what can happen when bridge and highway designs do not fully account for the natural movements of waterways and their sediment loads.

Hydraulic engineers work toward safe, economical, and environmentally sensitive transportation solutions wherever precipitation, runoff, streamflow, and ocean waters interact with roads, bridges, and culverts. One specific aspect of hydraulic engineering involves the design of infrastructure in river and stream environments.

The Federal Highway Administration promotes the use of sound river science and engineering principles in the design of river and stream crossings and other infrastructure encroachments on waterways. Collaboration with planners, environmental specialists, scientists, and other engineering disciplines enables hydraulic engineers to consider appropriate ranges of flow depths, velocities, durations, and other parameters for successful design outcomes.

A holistic design of transportation infrastructure in and around waterways requires careful consideration of river and stream processes. An interdisciplinary team approach to project planning, design, and operation that considers these natural processes may result in a successful project.

Structures such as bridges and culverts that do not account for the natural movements of waterways, the sediment and wood material they carry, and the aquatic and terrestrial organisms that call them home may fail to meet multiple design objectives. Factoring in river processes during transportation project development may prevent a river from eroding its riverbanks due to human-induced causes, claiming adjacent land in the floodplain, and jeopardizing transportation infrastructure and other assets.

In circumstances such as these, river flows can also carry and deposit eroded soil from the riverbanks, which could wash over and cover in-stream fish habitats, silt in other bridges and culverts, or pollute lakes and reservoirs. The altered river channel and flow may then expose and erode downstream bridge foundations and approach roadways. When these effects occur, jurisdictions may have to undertake substantial and costly maintenance actions to stabilize the river section and protect the adjacent transportation and agricultural assets.

Unfortunately, transportation agencies frequently face situations like these. A team of interdisciplinary and interagency professionals with knowledge of and experience in river science and engineering can help address these types of planning, design, and maintenance challenges.

A bridge carrying a roadway across a river.
An eroding river bank can cause damage downstream to bridges and road crossings.

Historical Obstacles to Learning And Collaboration

Many transportation agencies do not have the expertise, tools, and confidence to incorporate and apply river engineering and river science concepts to their transportation projects. To an extent, historical methods and tools used to train students and professionals account for the lack of a properly trained workforce.

FHWA hydraulic engineers have received significant feedback from State and local transportation professionals on how technology and training relating to river processes are deployed. Common criticisms of traditional training methods include:

  • Training and tools are too technical and "in the weeds" for transportation professionals who do not have extensive experience and education in hydraulic engineering.
  • Techniques and methods seem overwhelming and intimidating.
  • River and stream assessments require a large amount of data collection and field observations, but agencies lack a practical and established way to organize and use the data for project development and design.
  • Concepts and methods are not always intuitive, visual, and understandable.

In the past, engineers, scientists, and many educators have not routinely emphasized the importance of delivering river science and engineering training in an accessible, understandable, and practical form suited to a wide-ranging audience. A well-traveled story within the fields of hydraulic engineering and river science involves Albert Einstein and his son Hans. When Hans told his father he wished to study sediment transport and similar topics in rivers, Einstein is said to have expressed amazement that his son would want to pursue such a complex endeavor! Hans went on to become a pioneer in the fields of river science and sediment transport.

FHWA, like many other agencies and institutions, has historically trained professionals in river engineering and science in a manner that mirrored Einstein's reply to his son. Technical resource documents and training catered to a niche audience of hydraulic engineers and were laden with complex equations, charts, methods, and explanations. For most others who would benefit from at least some of this background knowledge, such as planners, environmental scientists, designers, engineers, and construction and maintenance staff, this material was often thought to be too complex and unattainable to learn.

Because hydraulic engineers and designers collaborate with numerous project stakeholders, successful and expressive communication, a common vocabulary, and a base-level of knowledge are key to project success. Hydraulic engineers, designers, and other project partners routinely experience misunderstandings and frustration when relating concepts and design information in ways that do not incorporate visual context and descriptions. Although river science and hydraulic engineering can be technically challenging fields, key concepts can be easily visualized and demonstrated regardless of the background and experience of the people studying and working in these areas.

Vermont Focuses on Hands-on Training

River processes, science, and engineering may become intuitive and relatable when practitioners are able to successfully visualize concepts and processes. This insight has led to the success of the Vermont Rivers and Roads Training Program, a collaboration between the Vermont Agencies of Transportation and Natural Resources.

Staci Pomeroy is a river resource scientist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, Watershed Management Division. As a co-developer of and a lead instructor for the program, she recognizes the value of hands-on-training and stream visits to teach seemingly complex concepts to transportation professionals who have little formal knowledge of river processes.

"There is a saying 'Tell me and I'll forget, but show me and I'll remember,'" says Pomeroy. "This has been a common theme heard from folks attending the Vermont Rivers and Roads Tier 2 Training Program. Now after 8 years of hosting the training, the comments from almost 600 attendees have indicated the importance of hands-on training. The success of the Rivers and Roads training has been to recognize that learning happens in different ways for different people and that providing a mix of classroom, stream table, and field exercises garners the best chance of someone not only hearing the information but remembering it."

Rivers and Roads Connection Program

FHWA is following Vermont's lead by developing the Rivers and Roads (R&R) Connection Program to develop and deploy visually engaging, intuitive training and techniques to a broad spectrum of transportation and resource agency professionals that work on projects within river and stream environments. R&R Connection will exemplify how transportation projects in river environments can successfully meet multiple design objectives including public safety, preservation and enhancement of natural ecosystem functions, and resilience. The program will emphasize the importance of clear communication and collaboration among all project partners and stakeholders.

A man stands beside a stream table demonstration.
Chao Huang, a contractor with FHWA's J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Research Laboratory at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, stands beside a stream table demonstration at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in January 2020.

With this program, FHWA aims to increase interest and excitement in natural sciences and engineering by changing the paradigm of training and technology deployment. The new style is intended to be fun, engaging, understandable, practical, and empowering.

Rivers and Roads Program

Attendee comments from Vermont's program indicate the success of hands-on and visual learning methods.

"I enjoyed the excellent mix of class, river flow tables, and field visits."
"The hands-on portion of the class really solidified what was learned in the classroom."
"The mixed-training format has provided a better understanding of river mechanics relative to in-stream work on construction projects."
"The afternoon field trips really brought home the message from morning class and stream table presentations, and now I have a better understanding of what to do after the next flood hits Vermont."









Visualization Tools for Hydraulics

Visualization and hands-on demonstration tools can make complex science and engineering concepts much more accessible.

Taking a cue directly from the Vermont program, FHWA's R&R Connection Program incorporates a stream table. A stream table with a portable flume, plastic sand media, and flowing water can demonstrate how rivers and roads interact in both beneficial and counterproductive ways. For example, FHWA staff use the stream table to present the importance of proper structure location and selection. Improper structure location and selection can exacerbate erosion at structure foundations, trigger river instability, jeopardize motorists, and destroy natural ecosystem features and functions. FHWA intends to make live stream table demonstrations and exercises a core component of an in-development stream dynamics workshop.

FHWA recently completed a second visually engaging and practical tool: a series of field scoping videos. The videos are intended to introduce good practices and procedures of project scoping (such as visual field assessment, data collection, and data interpretation) necessary for the hydraulic design and maintenance of transportation infrastructure. The videos are publicly available on the FHWA YouTubeTM channel (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5_sm9g9d4T1YwhKoJZGu3OxhcqqHCLCy) and target an audience of civil engineers, roadway designers, project managers, and other professionals involved with transportation project planning, development, and design. The specific field scoping video topics cover bridges, river and stream channels, highway drainage (culverts, ditches, medians, pavements, and storm drains), drainage maintenance projects, and pre-field visit data collection.

A man stands beside a river.
A consultant discusses field scoping practices for bridge projects in FHWA's series of videos.

Theodore Bender, a stormwater hydraulic engineer for the city of Fort Collins, CO, served on the oversight panel for the video project. "In my experience, collaboration has been an essential part of hydraulic engineering and river science," Bender says. "From the first site visit to the last peer review, input from the various interdisciplinary stakeholders creates a robust project that will serve the public for many years to come."

Successfully visualizing flow patterns in rivers and streams can also be accomplished using advanced technology, especially because physical site visits with experts are not always practical. Virtual reality site visits and river assessments will be another component of an FHWA-developed stream dynamics workshop.

A consultant discusses field scoping practices for bridge projects in FHWA's series of videos. A person wears a virtual reality headset as part of a demonstration of visual tools for flow modeling.
A consultant discusses field scoping practices for bridge projects in FHWA's series of videos. A person wears a virtual reality headset as part of a demonstration of visual tools for flow modeling.
Virtual reality technology, like the headset used here, can demonstrate how flow may erode a riverbed when moving through a bridge crossing a river. The insert in the lower left shows the heat map display, indicating less erosion and higher riverbed elevations (open/filled circles) along the edges and more erosion and lower riverbed elevations (open/filled diamonds) in the center of the river.

FHWA hydraulic engineers have used virtual reality technology to demonstrate how water depths, velocities, and riverbed elevations vary in river channels and around bridge piers and other foundation types. In modeling images, cool colors (blues and greens) are often used to denote deeper or slower moving water and lower channel elevations, and warmer colors (yellows and reds) may denote shallower and faster moving water and higher riverbed and floodplain elevations. FHWA will adapt this technology to perform virtual site visits. The images appearing in the virtual reality display will enable users to see real physical settings including river and stream channels, infrastructure, and their interactions.

FHWA hydraulic engineers have used an initiative in Every Day Counts round 5 (EDC-5), Collaborative Hydraulics: Advancing to the Next Generation of Engineering (CHANGE), to illustrate how hydraulic modeling software generates visually rich and descriptive results. These modeling results help project design teams convey to stakeholders where the water is flowing and how deep and fast it is moving. Hydraulic models are used to predict flood limits and flow velocities through bridge openings. Water surface elevations can determine the elevations of bridge decks, and flow velocities through the bridges can help determine the necessary depths of foundations.

Computer models can analyze and communicate complex flow patterns in an easily understood manner in which flow arrows show direction throughout the modeled river channel and colors convey faster or slower velocities. The visually descriptive model results enhance communication and reduce misunderstandings and miscommunications between project team members.

"I believe [transportation agencies] are welcoming the quality graphical output from 2D models to enhance collaboration and engage stakeholders," says Scott Hogan, the CHANGE technical lead and a senior hydraulic engineer with the FHWA Resource Center.

A heat map image of water flow passing under a bridge, with the colors indicating the velocity of the flow. A few hot spots indicate faster speeds of 10 to 12 feet per second (3 to 3.7 meters per second). In general, flow velocities are lowest at the banks and increase toward the middle of the river.
Hydraulic models, such as those deployed in the EDC-5 CHANGE initiative, show water depth, direction, and speed of flow.

Visualization and Collaboration For Success

Flow visualization tools such as stream tables, videos, virtual reality river and stream visits, and hydraulic modeling software are just some of the resources FHWA hydraulic engineers can use to create engaging, fun, and effective learning experiences. FHWA initiatives and State-sponsored efforts such as the Vermont Rivers and Roads Program that visualize water and infrastructure interactions have the potential to profoundly impact current and future generations of transportation professionals, project stakeholders, and educators and students with interest in natural sciences and engineering. Visual and engaging techniques can empower decisionmakers and practitioners with knowledge and skills to effectively preserve or enhance our river and road corridors.

Eric R. Brown, Ph.D., is a senior hydraulic engineer with FHWA's Office of Bridges and Structures, where he supports hydraulic engineering program areas. He holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

Laura Girard, PE, MSCE, is a hydraulic engineer with FHWA's Resource Center, where she provides technical support on hydraulic design and modeling. She holds an M.S. in civil engineering from Colorado State University.

KORNEL KERENYI, Ph.D., is a hydraulic research engineer in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure Research and Development. He holds a Ph.D. in fluid mechanics from Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) in Austria.

For more information, see www.fhwa.dot.gov/engineering/hydraulics or contact Eric R. Brown at 202-366-4598 or eric.r.brown@dot.gov.