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Mark out: Parry Sound manufacturer develops product that may revolutionalize flood control methods worldwide.

When the flood waters are rising and the dam is about to burst, there are usually plenty of volunteer hands pitching in to fill and pile sandbags.

But as the waters recede, who is there to help mop up the mess?

What is left is a mountain of mouldy and ragged sandbags, saturated with bacteria-filled sand and silt that can cause untold ecological damage to waterways, and can result in massive cleanup bills.

"The biggest cost is not the deployment of sandbags, it's when they're used," says Parry Sound entrepreneur Mike Bishop, who has come up with an environmentally friendly alternative for flood defence.

Floods are the single-largest natural cause of damage and destruction in the world, resulting in about $25 billion worth of property damage in North America each year, and about $100 billion worldwide.

Deploying the traditional sandbag dike is an expensive and labour-intensive task, requiring plenty of people power and a lot of grunt work.

But Bishop, a mechanical engineer and consultant, has been working on a reusable flood-control barrier that can be deployed in the field within minutes and then be folded up and whisked away just as fast.

As president and CEO of Watermark Innovations Inc., Bishop, 58, and three employees, including his son and research project manager, John, have spent the past two years creating an inflatable module, composed of a Kevlar-reinforced, geotextile material.

The material is coated with a PVC compound, which provides a sealant, is ultraviolet light resistant and has antibacterial inhibitors.

Bishop says one of his modules replaces hundreds of stacked sandbags.

Using a leaf blower, air is inflated into the empty 45-kilogram module, then the air is forced out with water pumped in directly from the flood source to weigh the bag down.

The triangular-shaped module, about four-and-half metres long and one metre high, holds almost 4,700 litres of water. The whole deployment process takes about 20 minutes.

The modules are then strung together with connection plates to form a barrier, strong enough to hold back 80 per cent of what Bishop calls most "passive" flooding.

"When this thing is filled, it is extremely stable," Bishop says. "You cannot move it.

"The Kevlar gives it a structural strength from a burst-and-tear point of view."

Bishop bought the technology from a predecessor company called WOW (wall of water).

He was hired by an investors group to research how their money was being spent.

Seems the now-defunct company was getting ahead of itself, says Bishop, in marketing the product before they actually .had a tried-and-true product to sell.

"It was a terrific idea," says Bishop, who was persuaded into buying the company's debenture two years ago and inherited the assets, which included about a half-million dollars worth of the Kevlar material.

Bishop made some design modifications by making it smaller for easier carrying, adding ribs for extra strength, installing better valve fittings, eliminating any exterior surface welds and reinforcing the inside lattice-work of bracing. A radio-frequency welder is used for the seam work."

Now seven prototypes and $3 million in private investment dollars later, he has a model - the Khiva - he feels is ready for the market.

In preparation, the company moved this spring from a plant in Orrville into a 6,000-square-foot research facility in Parry Sound, buying the former Wahlung garment building for just $250,000 with the aid of a $125,000-contribution by the Parry Sound Area Community Business and Development Centre.

Bishop has subjected the module to his own private battery of tests on the inland lake near his home, but the truest test comes this fall.

The governor of the hurricane state of South Carolina has set aside two miles of state park beach this September to test Watermark's Khiva model against the Atlantic ocean's tides.

"It's a phenomenal breakthrough for us because we can actually validate our product against actual flood-like conditions," he says.

Part of the test, expected to take months, will be a beat-the-clock competition against the Carolina National Guard who will construct a conventional sandbag barrier.

Should the series of trials go off without a hitch, Bishop expects to have no problem marketing the product to senior levels of government, municipalities, disaster response agencies and insurance companies.

"I'm sure they'll be knocking on our door."

The previous company had made some Asian contacts and Bishop just returned from a June business trip to Europe to pave the way for some opportunities next year.

Bishop says it is unlikely Watermark will sell the product - the module would likely go for $2,000 a piece - but rather lease it to clients, warehousing the modules in Parry Sound until the time of need.

"We'll be a flood management firm" employing up to 12 employees and producing about a kilometre of modules a month.

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has shown an interest, and Watermark has chosen an NRC-linked independent peer reviewer to follow their testing procedures.

"Since there are no standards, we're going to be the standard for all to follow," says Bishop, since only a handful of construction and swimming pool companies that he knows of dabble in flood suppression.

"We're the only company doing it too per cent full time."

Though some municipalities, including the flood-prone City of Winnipeg, are committed to sandbags as flood barriers, Bishop says there is a movement afoot in the federal government to eventually ban sandbags.

Beyond just flood barriers, Bishop explains the modules hold excellent potential for stream diversions, hazardous waste containment, silt barriers, sediment collection, temporary reservoirs, mudslide protection, overflow dams and wetlands management applications.

Bishop can be reached at mbishop@watermarkinnovations.com
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Watermark Innovations Inc.
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Words:939
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