What’s in our water?

Chace, Addy
Associate Professor Jameson Chace, Salve Regina University, and Kelly Addy, a University of Rhode Island hydrologist, test out a state-of-the-art water sensor on Aquidneck Island.

States design system to assess watershed health

A Track-2 water sensor

Rhode Island researchers are collaborating with their counterparts in Delaware and Vermont to create a network of high tech sensors in the watersheds of the three states. The selection of equipment is part of the process in putting a $6 million National Science Foundation grant to work, collecting real-time data to better preserve and protect our water sources.

The sensors, placed in streams, measure baseline water quality parameters that help researchers determine the overall conditions of water bodies, much like when people go to the doctor.  In a medical checkup, doctors assess certain basic parameters such as weight, blood pressure, heart rate, and reflexes to determine a patient’s overall health.

These state-of-the-art water sensors similarly assess the health of the watersheds and how extreme weather events may impact them. They are deployed continuously for weeks at a time, taking a biogeochemical pulse of the watershed.

The instruments measure a suite of parameters, including temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, suspended sediments, and organic materials that help scientists observe long-term changes in the water.

Beyond valuable observations of long-term trends, the sensors provide a critical technological advantage by giving scientists an inside look at water quality changes as extreme storm events take place.

How watersheds respond will be key in addressing climate variability scenarios where more extreme events are predicted. The water quality and quantity data gathered will help guide state leaders in crafting informed decisions and policies as climate variability and changing land use affect watersheds.

At the same time, Dr. Emi Uchida, a URI economist, says she and her peers in the other two states are creating models to conduct experiments on the social dimensions. They seek to understand how water resource users may respond to better information on water quality and with climate variability. The laboratory and field experiments will gauge how subjects will change decision rules, strategies, and preferences with different incentives, water quality information, and uncertainty in future climate.

The three states formed the North East Water Resources Network (NEWRnet) to carry out the three-year project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 program.

Bowden, Gold, Specker
Dr. William (Breck) Bowden, University of Vermont professor of watershed science and planning (right), looks at a point in the Aquidneck Island watershed with Dr. Jennifer Specker (center), URI oceanography professor and former project director and principal investigator for Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, and URI hydrologist Dr. Art Gold, RI Track-2 principal investigator.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle