Working for the Water Survey of Canada -
Brian Yurris, Prairie and Northern Region, Yellowknife, NWT
Photo: A hydrometric technologist navigates the frozen Mackenzie River. ©Environment Canada
The sound of two snowmobiles negotiating the rough, jumbled ice on the frozen Mackenzie River breaks the otherwise quiet of the morning. It is a frigid -38C give or take…without the wind chill. The hardy travellers stop, unload and set up their equipment, and go to work surveying the water level and measuring the flow under the ice. “Overflow on top the river ice we drill can coat you with a layer of icy spray. And on the rare occasion, you might hit a pressurized hole that will push your auger up out of the hole and a geyser 8 feet high will last a few minutes.”
That chilling description is a glimpse into a harsh and challenging, yet exhilarating, day in the life of Brian Yurris. After over 20 years as an Environment Canada hydrometric technologist with the Water Survey of Canada (WSC), Yurris still loves his job.
“Every trip is an adventure. We were up close to a lynx last month on a snowmobile ride up Bosworth Creek. We see scores of wildlife, experience breath-taking scenery and work on remote rivers that few have paddled.”
Photo: Brian Yurris takes a break with colleagues. ©Environment Canada
Yurris operates the Norman Wells field district and maintains stations on the Mackenzie River and its tributaries year round. He also assists with field work in the Central Arctic, on Baffin Island, the Mackenzie Delta and even Ellesmere Island. It’s a job that requires both physical and mental toughness. In the north, the majority of stream gauging stations are remote access only; you get there by chartered helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft on floats, skis and wheel-skis. “Planning and logistics are key ingredients of a successful field trip. You have to get it right the first time, because you’re not driving back to fix it tomorrow.”Yurris says hydrometric technologists today do the same basic work as they did over 100 years ago, when the WSC was founded. They continuously monitor rivers for water level and their corresponding flow. But the technology behind it has grown by leaps and bounds. During his career, he’s witnessed the move from analog to digital and beyond. “It is very exciting. Our high-tech digital instrumentation and data loggers transmit information from our stations to GOES satellite at a high data rate to produce real-time flow data for our clients and cost share partners on the WSC web site at the touch of a finger.”
Yurris feels he has the best of both worlds – a great mix of office and field work. In the office they work up the water level and flow data they’ve collected using sophisticated computational software. Satellite telemetry allows them to monitor the status of the stations from their desktops. “We become well acquainted with the rivers we monitor, through station visits in all seasons, and incorporate our intimate knowledge of the river’s characteristics to publish world class hydrometric data. It is very satisfying to be involved in the complete process.”The data Yurris and his colleagues collect and publish from the Norman Wells region is used by a wide variety of users for multiple applications. It is essential for industry like mining companies; the general public for recreational use; other scientists studying wildlife, the environment or climate change; and ministries like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that fund the annual Mackenzie River Water Level Forecast produced and disseminated by the Water Survey in Yellowknife on behalf of the Canadian Coast Guard.
Photo: Yurris and his team of hydrometric technologists on the frozen Mackenzie River.
In his environment, teamwork is a must and he has developed a genuine camaraderie working closely with the other technologists in the field and other valuable players such as the pilots who get them there and back.
Yurris spends between 50 and 70 nights away from home each year. “Although somewhat taxing, I am very fortunate to have a wife and three children that appreciate my commitment and know that dad loves his job too.” And he wouldn’t trade it – even when he’s warming up his frozen fingers and settling in with a tired crew at the end of a cold and wet day.
Debi Forlanski, Prairie and Northern Region, Winnipeg, MB
It was 1999, and residents of small towns in southern Manitoba were having flashbacks of 1997’s “Flood of the Century”, when the Red River overflowed its banks eliciting a call to the army for assistance. This time, the Souris River was washing out roads and damaging bridges, rendering 800,000 hectares of farmland unseedable. Environment Canada’s Water Survey of Canada (WSC) called in extra personnel to expand the area’s Hydrometric Network and Debi Forlanski was one of them. Just out of university, she participated in the WSC’s Red River Basin Enhancement Program and was hired for a 2-year term. “They needed more staff to help establish and manage new gauge stations. I stayed on. I found it was a good fit.” She has worked there ever since.
Photo: WSC hydrometric technologist Debi Forlanski reviews readings inside an Armco shelter.
Having a well-developed range of skills and being adaptable and innovative are essential qualities for success in this field. Forlanski says the wide variety of components to the job make it very attractive. “It’s very hands-on. You need to become familiar with our computer system where we compile our data. You have to learn how to use many types of instrumentation and high tech monitoring equipment, including the Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers to measure flow.”
There’s a steep learning curve and it takes time to get legs as Forlanski puts it. New hires must go through a 3.5-year career development program that includes on-the-job training. “You can’t experience all conditions in one year. In Manitoba you’ll find a whole range of conditions – droughts, major floods, sweltering heat, heavy snow, bitter winds and extreme cold – sometimes during the same season, not too far from each other on the map.”
During another significant rise in water levels two years ago in the northern Interlake region, she recalls launching into the flood waters in a boat, off the side of a road, and steering through a marsh to reach the mouth of the river, then travelling 27 km to get to the gauging station. She had the task of navigating to the gauge to service the equipment and perform a discharge measurement.
“The beauty of being on the water was incredible. And I like the independence associated with it. Having to rely on your own improvisational skills and getting the job done successfully...it’s an accomplishment.”
Forlanski enjoys the physical challenges of field work, as difficult as it is at times. In the winter, they work in pairs, travelling by helicopter or snowmobile at times. Their tasks can include obtaining bridge measurements in harsh conditions anddrilling through the ice to measure water level and flow.
Photo: Forlanski operates an ice auger on Cooks Creek near Oakbank MB. ©Environment Canada
"All this hard work provides critical hydrometric data to clients."
Government and other agencies can use the data for flood forcasting, water licencing, environmental assessments or regulatory processes. The results give academics or institutions what they need for, research and investigating climate change. The public consults information for recreational planning. Hydro power companies or operations that manage reservoirs or diversions also value the data. Forlanski adds, “We now have equipment that allows us to monitor many gauge stations remotely and offer clients near real-time data on the web.”
Hydrometric technology was not her career plan back in 1999, but for Forlanski, it has become as fulfilling and satisfying an occupation as she could imagine.
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