Xylem technology used to study major river systems

A research center has partnered with Xylem’s YSI brand in a project to monitor water quality along the entire length of the Mississippi River. Using Xylem’s solution, The National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) aims to establish a global network of real-time water quality monitoring platforms on great rivers around the world.

For thousands of years, the development of human civilization has been closely linked with great rivers. Over time, humans have altered these ecosystems and continue to affect them today. In order to protect both the ecology and economies around major rivers, research is required to understand how and why these ecosystems are changing.

NGRREC studies major river systems, the watersheds that feed them and the ties to the communities that use them. The center is strategically located, operating from a field station in Illinois where the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers meet. Founded in 2002, the center is a partnership between the Illinois Natural History Survey, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lewis and Clark Community College.

A network of water quality monitoring platforms

NGRREC partners had been taking discrete water quality samples on the Mississippi River for more than 20 years. Because these samples were taken at intervals over a wide spatial range, changes that happened on a short time scale, such as a flood pulse over a week’s time, were not captured.

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The center wanted to find a more comprehensive way to collect data and detect trends on the Mississippi River. This would help inform decision-makers for policy reform, improve sustainable river management, and add to the understanding of great rivers. With this in mind, the center launched a new project: The Great Rivers Ecological Observation Network (GREON).

The GREON program seeks to establish a network of real-time water quality monitoring platforms on great rivers around the world. The network will give scientists the ability to compare and contrast different rivers and address pressing issues such as nutrient loading, sediment loading and climate change.

YSI develops the PISCES platform

NGRREC partnered with YSI to design and launch a monitoring buoy capable of real-time, continuous collection of water quality and phytoplankton data. In May 2013, the first buoy was launched on the Upper Mississippi River System. The buoy system was named the PISCES platform (Pontoon for In-situ Characterization of Environmental Systems).

The PISCES platform is outfitted with a YSI EXO2 sonde, UV nitrate sensor, weather sensor and data logger. Testing of the platform in a backwater channel connected to the Mississippi River showed that it delivered accurate, reliable data. Over the next two years, NGRREC purchased and deployed a total of seven fully outfitted PISCES platforms.

Three of these units are on the main channel of the Mississippi River, two on backwaters contiguous with the river, and two are on reservoirs in the watershed. These continuous monitoring stations have helped to fill in the data gaps from discrete sampling.

A focus on nutrient monitoring

The mobile nature of the floating platform has allowed the research team to be opportunistic and, if desired, move units to address specific research questions. Eventually, the program aims to expand the deployment of platforms to great rivers across the globe.

With the emergence of the U.S. Geological Survey’s large network of sensors on big rivers and tributaries, the GREON program now does not have to focus as many resources on general monitoring of the Mississippi River’s main channel. GREON’s mission has shifted slightly to focus more on the nutrient monitoring part of the network. This supports NGRREC’s work on hypoxia, a phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support aquatic life.

Sharing data through an online database

The GREON program is augmented by another collaborative project at NGRREC, the Great Lakes to Gulf Virtual Observatory. This interactive geospatial application shares water resource information from the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Its allows users to view data and geospatial context layers from many publicly available sources on a common map-based interface.

The database supports the activities of the EPA’s Hypoxia Task Force, as well as the activities undertaken by state agencies in their nutrient reduction strategies. It provides a user-friendly way to view nutrient and water quality data.

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