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Robotic Water Monitoring System Keeps Watch Over Lake Onandoga - 2004-09-09


Onandoga Lake in central New York has a dubious claim to fame. It is one of America's dirtiest lakes, fouled by industrial pollution that began with a nearby salt factory nearly 200 years ago.

More recently, a combination of chemical processing wastes, urban development and treated sewage have further degraded the lake's condition.

VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on a high-tech monitoring system in the region that can help managers respond faster to water quality and security problems.

Simply put, Lake Onandoga is bad for your health. You cannot drink the water. You cannot eat the fish. And, swimming was banned here long ago.

Even so, people love the place. Lakefront trails attract bikers and joggers and families out for a stroll at any time of day. But, residents want to do more than race around Onandoga. They want to reclaim it for recreation.

The local government is doing its part by financing a $380 million, 15-year plan to clean up residential waste. That effort is coupled with a court mandated clean-up of an industrial waste site already targeted for action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On this sunny morning we join scientist Steven Effler from the Upstate Freshwater Institute and Charles Driscoll, a professor of environmental engineering at Syracuse University on an inspection visit to a monitoring station on the southern shore of lake Onandoga, not far from Syracuse. Mr. Effler directs the boat to a floating platform and explains how the autonomous system works.

"We call it a robotic monitoring buoy. It is solar powered. And it is programmed," says Steven Effler. "There is an on-board computer and cell phone hookup. It is programmed to collect water quality information at one-meter depth increments, twice a day. After it is collected, the information is sent in near-real-time to a public website where interested parties [can] sign on to see what Onandoga Lake is doing today."

"Within this device that moves up and down there are a series of sensors, and these sensors detect various water quality measurements such as oxygen, temperature, light, the particle content in water, the amount of algae in water," says Charles Driscoll.

Mr. Driscoll says the robotic device has some distinct advantages over traditional data collection methods.

"If you think about how monitoring is normally done, an individual comes out in a boat like this and they might come out once a week or once a month and so it is very labor intensive," he said. "They collect the samples. [The researchers] bring them back to a laboratory and then they make a series of measurements. Here they all the measurements are made in site. We can make these measurements at multiple depths at multiple times during the day. So, we can get a really good idea of true water quality."

Rosanne Skirble: And, you can do this from your office at Syracuse University.

Charles Driscoll: Yes, anybody, not only us. It is a public domain website, and people can track the water quality.

Mr. Driscoll says that timely data can help cut critical response time when addressing any water supply problem.

"Our vision is that municipalities will have what we call intelligent environmental systems that will allow them to make management decisions on the fly [quickly] rather than getting the results back from the laboratory and [after] six months realizing that last year there was a water quality violation and knowing that they have to do something," he said. "So [our goal is] to try to respond to water quality issues in more near real time, which is critical for security issues in water supplies. If there has been some kind of contamination of water supply, it is critical for the municipality to work very quickly to that event and we are hoping that this technology will help in that regard."

Eight of these robotic samplers are at work in Central New York state. Within a year, researchers hope to install four more to make the system the largest underwater monitoring network in the United States.

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