In partnership with advisory board member Amy O’Leary, PhD, associate director for environment, planning and economics research at the Virginia Transportation Research Center (VRTC), VA’s LTAP is pleased to present a series of on-going research spotlights. Every few months, we’ll bring you updates about research being put into action to increase efficiencies and provide sustainable transportation solutions. 

This month’s Research in Action features a study conducted by a team of University of Virginia researchers to tackle the impact of climate change on flooding in low-lying, low-relief coastal cities, in this case – Norfolk, Virginia – a city experiencing faster than average sea level rise (SLR). The team set out to assess the effectiveness of real-time control (RTC), specifically model predictive control (MPC) of stormwater actuators, such as pumps, gates, and valves, to control the storage and flow of water dynamically, in real-time.

In a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Hydrology (available online at, the researchers used predictive modeling to simulate 2-year 12-hour design storm and sea level rise scenarios up to 3.5 feet. Three control scenarios were implemented: 1) a passive system (current state of the system) 2) a passive system with a tide gate (a mechanical device that prevents backflow into the system) and 3) a tide gate scenario with actuators, such as rain gauges, water level sensors, and flow meters, controlled by MPC.

The simulations showed that flooding in the passive system reached a tipping point and increased dramatically after a sea level rise of 1.6 ft. The addition of a tide gate greatly mitigated the increase in flooding. MPC further reduced overall flooding with an average effective percent reduction of 32%. For sea level rises of 2.0 ft and above, MPC reduced maximum node flood volume by an average of 52%. These results indicate that the use of tide gates and other actuators controlled by MPC can significantly reduce overall flood volumes and severity at specific locations in coastal cities.

“The promise of RTC systems is to identify capacity in under-utilized facilities, such as a storage pond, and make control decisions at the time of a rainfall or rising tide event,” stated Jon Goodall, PhD, one the study’s lead researchers. “By strategically redirecting water flows through gates or controlling stormwater pipes in real-time, we can leverage existing infrastructure and avoid expensive structural investments. Importantly, we take control of addressing potential flooding events as they happen.”

For information about this study, contact Jon Goodall, department of engineering systems and environment at the University of Virginia, at

Sadler JM, Goodall JL, Behl M, Bowes BD, Morsy MM (2020, in press) Exploring real-time control of stormwater systems for sea level rise. Journal of Hydrology: 583.

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