SCADA communications network enables remote operations in Wood Buffalo

Radio path studies
Radio path studies were conducted for all edge sites to provide height requirements for radio connectivity to the backhaul.

By Jason Vanderzwaag and Kristen Andersen

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northern Alberta has grown significantly over the past 15 years. It has continued to expand its water and wastewater infrastructure since the 1980s, in order to meet the demands of a growing population. The system includes more than 50 facilities in a 200 kilometre radius, many in remote areas.

Operating, maintaining, and monitoring them has become a challenge. To assist day-to-day operations, the municipality needed to be able to operate and monitor the facilities remotely. It retained Associated Engineering to plan, design and implement a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) communication system. This system needed to be secure, robust, flexible and scalable.

Wood Buffalo’s remote water and wastewater facilities are normally unattended, with operations staff monitoring the sites using a mix of older radio and leased telephone line technologies. Communications outages were starting to become a problem. Thus, standardizing and modernizing the network was a necessity.

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The project was developed in three stages. Stage one was to develop a SCADA master plan for the municipality, including developing a network plan for every water and wastewater facility.

According to project manager Steve Justus, “the SCADA Master Plan laid the groundwork for the architecture of a new high-speed radio network composed of a ‘backhaul’, a high-speed network of six radio access points, and ‘edge’ sites that connect to the backhaul.”

Stage two involved the design and implementation of the backhaul. Six radio towers were erected, extending from Fort McMurray, north of the Athabasca River, to 25 kilometres south of the city. These were equipped with high-bandwidth, point-to-point radios linking them together. Point-to-multipoint radios were also installed on these towers to provide radio coverage throughout the urban service area.

Network routers at each backhaul site were configured to separate the water, wastewater and radio management traffic into three mutually exclusive networks, all sharing the same physical infrastructure. This phase was completed as a design-build, with Associated Engineering acting as the owner’s engineer.

Stage three connected the edge sites to the backhaul network and integrated process data from these edge sites to the central operations teams at the Fort McMurray water and wastewater treatment plants. Staff conducted site inspections on the remote sites, identifying control requirements to make existing facilities compatible with the new technologies. Radio path studies were conducted for all edge sites to provide height requirements for radio connectivity to the backhaul.

During stage three, the water treatment plant’s control computer software and hardware was upgraded. The hardware was replaced with high-quality, rack-mounted servers, running in a virtualized environment. So, new servers can be added with minimal additional hardware expense. It also allows the relocation between physical hardware, for ease of maintenance.

Then, the existing SCADA graphics were migrated to the new servers, and new graphics were developed for the remote stations as they were linked to the backhaul network. This involved creating high-performance graphics for the water distribution network, and traditional graphics using an existing template for the wastewater network.

Justus says: “Performing this work as a design-build meant that it could be fast-tracked and easily adapted to issues with legacy systems, as they came to light. This allowed for maximum flexibility, collaboration and ease of integration to meet the project goals.”

The project was completed in August 2019 and the new communications networks will help reduce transportation costs and associated greenhouse gas emissions for operator travel to remote sites. In addition, the new system is much more responsive and allows for more detailed supervision and reporting from each site. This improves system resiliency in the event of environmental crises and extreme weather events.

Jason Vanderzwaag and Kristen Andersen are with Associated Engineering Group Ltd. For more information email:

Read the full article in ES&E Magazine’s August/September 2020 issue:

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