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Water sensors, data make Great Lakes smarter

A buoy monitors western Lake Erie for harmful algal blooms. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By INDRI MAULIDAR

Special to the Journal

LANSING — The marriage of technology and the city is often called “smart city.” Now imagine that the same matrimony could happen for the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Observing System, a network of buoys and underwater probes, has created “Smart Great Lakes” by making it easy for the public and policy makers to access its data.

It means that the communities that rely on Lake Erie for drinking water can get an early warning of incoming algae blooms. The platform, currently under development, can send warnings by text message or email, according to a report on a year-long “Smart Great Lakes” pilot project.

The buoys and underwater probes measure water quality parameters like pH, turbidity, blue green algae, chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen, said Rebecca Pearson, the chief operations officer at the Great Lakes Observing System based in Pittsfield Township near Ann Arbor.

Water sensors detect when certain thresholds are exceeded, triggering a text that is sent to the users. Those thresholds can include how murky the water is or how much of a certain type of chlorophyll is present, Pearson said.

“The text gives the users a quick summary of important details and a link that allows them to view more information on a website,” she said.

Other data comes from field monitoring stations that grab and analyze weekly water samples, Pearson said. They can provide toxicity information on blue green algae at specific locations.

The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory also provides data to forecast algae blooms. Environmental Sample Processors, designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will collect and analyze toxicity to provide more data for the early warning system.

At least 11 million people rely on Lake Erie for drinking water. Each summer, harmful algae can threaten their health if it produces toxins. In 2014, more than 400,000 residents of Toledo lost access to water as the algae threatened their drinking water system.

An early warning system could help residents be better informed and prepared for such a crisis, the report said.

Twenty organizations now contribute data to the “Smart Great Lakes” initiatives at Lake Erie, Pearson said. The group hopes that more agencies, universities and even citizens will collect data. They can sign in at the Great Lakes Observing System website.

“Under our Smart Great Lakes initiative, we hope to lower the barriers for organizations and individuals interested in Great Lakes observations or data collection,” Pearson said. “If we design our new technology platform well, everyone can work together more efficiently.”

Organizers have a five-year strategic plan to extend the system beyond Lake Erie to all the Great Lakes.

“Additional costs to implement it in other Great Lakes would come from purchasing water quality monitoring equipment as needed, deploying and maintaining that equipment on an annual basis, and the operation and maintenance costs for the information and technology system,” Pearson said.

The initiative is gaining support from agencies like the Council of the Great Lakes Region.

“The protection and sustainable development of the basin requires intimate knowledge about how socioeconomic activities impact the health of the entire watershed,” said Mark Fisher, the president of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, a binational organization that focuses on collaboration between private, public and nonprofit sectors.

“The council is proud to support and develop the Smart Great Lakes Initiative so that policymakers, scientists and businesses can make better decisions,” he said.

The nonprofit Cleveland Water Alliance initiated data collaboration to better monitor Lake Erie. The group worked with universities, businesses and agencies to build the innovation based on Lake Erie.

Lake Erie is now the most wired and connected of the Great Lakes, said Bryan Stubbs, executive director of the alliance. It has around 20 public and private smart buoys that can text the latest lake observations, including air and water temperatures, wind speed, pH and wave height.

Applying a similar initiative to all the Great Lakes would be challenging, Stubbs said. Collaboration among organizations and government agencies is key.

“It will take time to socialize the effort with the other Great Lakes and various stakeholders,” he said.

The program launches this spring in Ohio at Toledo, Cleveland, Sandusky and Lorain. Lake Erie residents in Chautauqua and Buffalo in New York and in Detroit can also join, Stubbs said.

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