GLASSES: Smart Technology Expands Water Quality Monitoring Capabilities
Water. Most North Americans take it for granted. Turn on the tap, and voila. But throughout the country, the quality of our water is being threatened by a tiny and surprisingly resilient enemy – algae. More specifically, a form of toxic algae which scientists call “harmful algal blooms” (or HABs). Smelly and slimy, often resembling the frothy top layer of your great aunt’s lime Jell-O salad, harmful algal blooms (HABs) can cause a range of potential problems to human health, the environment, and local economies. In one well-publicized example, unsafe levels of toxins (caused by HABs in Lake Erie) in Toledo’s water supply left close to half a million people without water in 2014, resulting in Ohio Governor John Kasich declaring a state of emergency.
And Ohio isn’t alone. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, harmful algal blooms (HABs) reported in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs bearing nutrient-rich waters are one of the costliest and most challenging environmental problems facing our nation today. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) develop when normal algae levels in water become too high. The root cause is generally nutrient loading – most often from agricultural runoff heavy with phosphorus and nitrogen. As a result, the Ohio EPA is taking a proactive approach to solving the problem and is currently evaluating possible legislation that will limit phosphorus statewide. Slow moving water and excessive sunlight are also contributing factors in harmful algal blooms (HABs) development.
Measuring and tracking nutrient levels in and entering surface water from tributaries is a critical component of understanding and predicting harmful algal blooms (HABs) and targeting sources to improve water quality. However, solutions have historically been hampered by the absence of an affordable, real-time nutrient detection method. The Cleveland Water Alliance set out to resolve that issues last year when it issued the Internet of H2O Challenge, a competition inviting engineers and scientists to submit their best ideas for a robust and resilient nutrient monitoring program with the potential to scale across the Great Lakes.
OHM Advisors, of course, rose to the occasion, putting together a team from our staff, Green Eyes LLC, Hamlett Engineering Sales Co. (HESCO), and H2Ometrics to develop a joint solution. What the team came up with took first prize. And it’s more than a theory or concept. Dubbed GLASSES (Great Lakes Automated Sampling Solution and Evaluation System), it’s an end-to-end, field-ready monitoring solution that’s proven to work. Plus, it’s affordable and scalable and it can work with a wide variety of already-existing technologies. So it’s essentially a win-win-win-win-win.
We sat down with one of the masterminds, Karlin Danielsen, PhD, who broke down HABs and the winning GLASSES technology for us in layman’s terms. Here’s what we learned:
Before we get into the specifics of GLASSES, why are harmful algal blooms (HABs) such a problem?
Beside the fact that they have the potential to kill fish and cause sickness in humans and animals, ranging from skin irritation and flu-like symptoms to kidney failure, they require specialized treatment – including expensive retrofits to treatment plants that result in higher processing costs. These costs ultimately get passed along to the consumer. In addition, HABs can have an impact on a community’s bottom line – devastating to property values, tourism, and businesses that need fresh water sources to thrive.
What is GLASSES and how does it help solve the problem of HABs?
GLASSES, short for Great Lakes Automated Sampling Solutions and Evaluation System, is essentially a model for marrying several different types of technologies in order to enable real-time monitoring of nutrients or other types of substances. It integrates innovative detection methods, telemetry, and cloud-based analytics, all of which are automated, low-cost components that are already tested and exist on the market today.
For the Cleveland Water Alliance’s Internet of H2O Competition, GLASSES used water monitoring equipment provided by Green Eyes Science to collect data, telemetry units provided by HESCO to transmit the data, and a cloud-based analytics platform provided by H2Ometrics to present visual results in real time. The beauty is in how the pieces work together to feed data, every hour, to a cloud-based database. As a result, we get a density and frequency of data that we never had before. And that dramatically improves our ability to monitor water quality in real time.
How is GLASSES different from the traditional approach to nutrient monitoring and detection and what does that mean for the field?
There are many challenges to monitoring nutrients that cause HABs in the Great Lakes and its tributaries, including the high cost of monitoring phosphorus and the lack of continuous data available to support real-time decision making. While monitoring the water quality of tributaries is not a new idea, the traditional techniques of performing monitoring have come with inherent limitations. Often times, monitoring programs have involved sending out a crew by vehicle to perform grab sampling or using composite samplers to collect samples, and then testing those samples in a lab. This method of monitoring naturally limits the frequency of sampling and the timeliness of turning samples into valuable information.
GLASSES helps solve some of these issues by enabling real-time monitoring and giving a more holistic view of what’s happening in the water. While there are many sensors out there that allow users to view data on a website, often times the individual data streams cannot be viewed simultaneously. In the past, the best we could achieve was a snap shot of what was happening in the water. GLASSES delivers the whole story. It’s a lot like a pair of eyeglasses, hence the name. The user-friendly visual platform allows us to see the big picture of what’s happening. This enables new levels of insight for more effective decision making. In other words, communities can now play a much more active role in identifying pollutant sources and possible solutions.
How do you know GLASSES works?
We demonstrated the readiness of the GLASSES technology in a proof-of-concept deployment on Rock Creek, monitoring nutrient concentrations, at the USGS gauging station in Tiffin, OH. Rock Creek drains primarily agricultural land and is subject to flashy flows with dynamic loading rates of phosphorus, sediment, and other parameters important to the formation of HABs, making it an ideal location for testing new nutrient monitoring technologies. Plus, the National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) at Heidelberg University has an ongoing nutrient monitoring program at the Rock Creek site. So, we were able to validate our data with a highly reputable and independent laboratory. The results showed excellent agreement between the two data sets.
For the Internet of H2O Competition GLASSES used technologies from GreenEyes/HESCO/H2Ometrics. But could it work with similar technologies from other manufacturers, or be used for other applications?
Absolutely. GLASSES is a system that can work with any collection of monitoring equipment, telemetry, and analytics software. The individual components of GLASSES can flex to fit a client’s needs, budget, and situation. More than that, GLASSES has broader applications than nutrient monitoring. Right now, GLASSES is being used to perform residual chlorine (TRC) monitoring for a large treatment facility off the shores of the Great Lakes in an effort to enhance operations and optimize treatment processes.
Can you provide a few real-world examples of how GLASSES might be used in the immediate future?
With GLASSES, it’s possible to implement a full-scale monitoring network that can identify nutrient hot spots throughout a watershed, guide management programs to target those sources, and monitor the success of implemented nutrient reduction solutions. And, because the technology is affordable, it makes regional source tracking a reality. GLASSES has the potential to identify the levels of phosphorus from multiple sources, providing the necessary information to focus on the largest sources first. Communities can keep nutrients from feeding HABs by evaluating best management processes (BMPs) and funding those that deliver results.
So, what’s next for smart water quality monitoring at OHM Advisors?
Glad you asked! We’re currently developing a “smart” kayak to identify water quality issues in rivers and lakes. The idea is to mount water quality monitoring probes on a kayak equipped with GPS positioning and a 360o GoPro camera. The kayak will detect chemical or bacterial contamination as it travels. We will then mark the locations where contamination was detected, collect samples, and take 360o photos to identify the source. Communities can use this tool to quickly and affordably monitor natural waterways for illegal discharges, leaking sewers, and nutrient-laden stormwater runoff.
For more on GLASSES or our water quality monitoring capabilities, contact our experts at firstname.lastname@example.org.