Low Cost Water Quality Monitoring

Water quality has quickly become one of the most pressing environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  After decades of smaller than expected improvements in the health of the Chesapeake, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) in an effort to establish measurable goals that specify nutrient and sediment load allocations needed in the watershed to improve dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and chlorophyll a conditions in the Bay.

Sources/Usage: Public Domain. 2012 VA NAIP imagery of a creek on the James River.

Thanks to the generous support of the Intel Corporation, Chesapeake Conservancy has begun exploring options for low-cost monitoring technology that will allow for an extensive, distributed, network of water quality sensors that will allow our partners to identify priority watersheds that are contributing higher than expected nutrient and sediment loads to the Chesapeake and track their improvement over time.

The TMDL has resulted in watershed management efforts going into “high gear”, with state and local governments, non-profit groups and businesses searching for ways to incorporate “best management practices” (BMPs) designed to achieve pollution load allocations for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment including both engineered solutions, such as wastewater treatment plant upgrades and storm water management retrofits, and more natural solutions, such as grass filter strips and stream buffer restoration efforts.

Chesapeake Conservancy has been making significant advances in targeting natural solutions where they will be most effective using Precision Conservation, however it will be imperative to monitor, track, and quantify these improvements to highlight the fact that conservation and restoration projects, which provide a multitude of ecosystem benefits in addition to their water quality benefits, are a more cost-effective and efficient solution than engineered solutions.

To help identify potential monitoring technologies and better understand what is needed to create a monitoring network in the watershed, Chesapeake Conservancy interviewed experts from around the country and highlighted the most promising current and emerging water quality sensor technologies.  In the resulting Low Cost Water Quality Monitoring Needs Assessment, the Conservancy focused on answering the following questions:

  1. What are the water quality monitoring needs and challenges for:  a) stream and wetland monitoring, b) nutrient trading related monitoring, and c) crowd sourcing of water quality data?
  2. What existing and emerging monitoring technologies are relevant to the Conservancy’s areas of interest?
  3. What are the gaps between what exists and what is needed and how can they be closed?

The Conservancy sees potential widespread uses for low cost water quality monitoring devices that can supplement other technologies being used to track and verify how various landscapes and BMPs are affecting water quality.  Some possible monitoring applications that will continue to be explored include:

  • Monitoring farm level BMP’s for before/after water quality changes
  • Verifying “credits” and their effectiveness in nutrient/carbon trading transactions
  • Conservation easement compliance
  • Hydrological and water quality conditions at potential/actual restoration sites
  • Crowd sourced and local water quality/biological monitoring networks, and
  • Monitoring climate change dimensions such as salt water intrusion or sea level rise.