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Engineer makes a career, and a hobby, out of modeling

Engineer makes a career, and a hobby, out of modeling Using leading-edge software, Adam Janzen builds computational models to help clients better understand how groundwater flow and quality relate to their project. “A groundwater model gives us a ‘workbench’ to test out different concepts and help the client make the best decisions,” Adam explains.

In the converted attic of Adam Janzen’s home, the pursuit to create scale models of real-life systems never rests. In this dual-purpose room, one side serves as Adam’s home office for Barr, the other the manifestation of his lifelong hobby, model railroading.

“I like to build stuff,” said Adam, a senior environmental engineer who specializes in computational modeling to unlock answers about groundwater flow and quality. “The concept of modeling has always been something that’s appealed to me.”

Modelers forecast the future. They create mathematical representations of natural and man-made systems to simulate their behavior over time under specific conditions.

Modelers forecast the future. They create mathematical representations of natural and man-made systems to simulate their behavior over time under specific conditions. Adam builds computational models that help Barr’s clients answer important questions about the water we can’t see—groundwater. Questions such as, “How will dewatering an open-pit mine impact the surrounding watershed?” Or, “How can we clean up a plume of contaminated groundwater?” Or, “How sustainable is our community’s drinking water supply?”

That last question is top of mind for many cities and municipalities across North America, especially in the western U.S. where leaders grapple with how best to manage a diminishing water supply. In some areas, managed aquifer recharge (MAR) can be a key piece of the water supply puzzle. This technology enhances natural recharge by adding water to aquifers for environmental benefit or to be stored for later use during times of scarcity.

Adam co-authored the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council’s Managed Aquifer Recharge Guidance document and spoke about MAR—and the important role groundwater modeling plays—at the WateReuse Symposium in Denver, Colorado, this month.

You build groundwater models for Barr’s clients and model trains in your free time. Is there a connection there?

Definitely. Recreating something that’s real has always been satisfying to me on a personal level. And there are certainly parallels between my work and my hobby, such as compiling the available information about the real thing and then deciding what level of detail for the model is good enough. Model railroading is valuable to me as a fun way to spend my free time. I have fun building groundwater models too, but the real value they provide to our clients is a better upfront understanding of the risks and impacts associated with a project. Before you spend millions of dollars to construct and implement the project, it’s prudent to first spend thousands of dollars on modeling to make sure it’s going to work as intended.

A model was a key part of Barr’s work with the City of Provo, Utah, which in 2019 embarked on a MAR project to augment the community’s drinking water supply for future growth. And other communities, especially in the West, are using or considering this technology. Why is MAR getting so much attention these days?

It’s a combination of reasons. Climate change and droughts have gotten people thinking about water supply. And in certain parts of the country, we’re seeing adverse impacts from decades of extracting water from the ground. This could be as simple as observing long-term decreasing trends in groundwater levels or as extreme as crumbling infrastructure due to land subsidence. MAR might not be able to reverse these impacts, but putting water back into the ground does help to prevent things from getting worse.

The benefits of MAR are well documented, but it can be challenging to find a source of water for it. That’s where the water reuse angle comes in. You might have to get creative and make use of sources like treated wastewater or stormwater.

Read more about our work with the City of Provo in our recent blog article on aquifer storage and recovery projects.

How does modeling play a role in MAR projects?

We can’t see the aquifer and therefore we don’t really know what’s going on down there. Monitoring wells can give us a few tiny windows into the aquifer, but the only way that we can see the whole picture is to build a model. A groundwater model gives us a “workbench” to test out different concepts and help the client make the best decisions.

At the WateReuse Symposium, you talked about the role groundwater modeling plays in MAR projects and the importance of communicating to stakeholders what the models tell us. How does Barr facilitate that communication?

Technical communication is a passion of mine. I could build the best model ever but still fail at my job if I can’t explain to the client what the results mean for the success of the project. One of my favorite parts of every project is making figures and maps to tell the story, and I’m always listening to feedback to do a better job of that. Explaining the model at the right level is just as important as building the model in the first place.

How has your work changed over the years?

The projects keep getting more complex and the modeling tools we use keep getting more sophisticated. The latter is good news for the former because it allows us to accurately simulate reality. At Barr, we enjoy the challenge of modeling complex systems, and we routinely push the limits of the software to make it do what we need.

Interested in joining the Barr team? Check out our open positions.

About Adam Janzen

A senior environmental engineer at Barr, Adam Janzen has 12 years of experience in groundwater hydrology and specializes in the use of computational models to solve complex problems involving groundwater flow and quality. Adam develops groundwater models for a wide variety of applications, including municipal water supply, surface mine dewatering, contaminated site assessment and remediation, surface water-groundwater interactions, and managed aquifer recharge.

Image gallery (below):

  1. Away from work, four young children keep Adam and his wife Ellen sufficiently busy. 

  2. Adam puts the finishing touches on a model boxcar. Model railroading has been a favorite hobby of Adam’s since childhood. His model railroad is based on the Toledo, Peoria & Western railroad near where he grew up in Illinois. 

  3. Adam gets ready to trick-or-treat with his “daughter fleet.” 

  4. Adam testing out different carousel animals on his middle daughter’s birthday. 

  5. Barr is always looking for the next engineer or scientist to add to our team. Adam recently attended a career fair at his alma mater, the University of Illinois, with colleagues (from left) Matthew Billette, Cory Anderson, and Dafar Obeidat.


Adam Janzen, Senior Environmental Engineer
Adam Janzen
Senior Environmental Engineer
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