Working for Water

CWA serves as a model for other coastal communities to build their own monitoring networks and improve infrastructure management

Working for Water

The Cleveland Water Alliance organized the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network, which comprises hundreds of volunteers that serve 16 different water-monitoring programs.

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Aided by a network of eco-minded volunteers, a nonprofit organization is steadfastly monitoring water quality across the Lake Erie watershed and collecting data that will help local and regional agencies — and perhaps even utilities — make decisions about water-related policies and infrastructure.

The Cleveland Water Alliance organized the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network, which comprises hundreds of volunteers that serve 16 different water-monitoring programs, says Max Herzog, CWA program manager.

The agency created the volunteer network, which is funded by philanthropic organizations, about three years ago. The goal: Galvanize and support local groups that were already monitoring water quality and turn them into a collaborative team whose data collection efforts will help inform policy and investment decisions and investments regarding items such as water management and governance, research and infrastructure, he says.

“We came to the table with funding and asked these groups if it would be worthwhile to work together and unlock the potential of their data to a greater degree, as well as standardize the ways they collect, manage and analyze data,” Herzog says.

“Some of these groups have been around for 10 to 20 years,” he adds. “They’re our eyes and ears out in the field. Sometimes they simply see things because they’re actually physically out there while they’re collecting data. Maybe they see excessive land erosion or too much standing water or even cows standing in a ditch, for example.”

Driving business development

On a broader level, CWA also strives to nurture a so-called “innovation cluster” of businesses, research institutions and utilities that develop and implement water-related technologies. The organization helps these groups by testing pilot versions of technologies or having volunteers test them, then helping those companies bring the products to market, where they can be used to solve water quality problems both locally and regionally as well as nationally, Herzog says.

CWA helps both startups and established companies commercialize their products so they can provide benefits outside the region as well as boost regional business development and become a global hub of water technology innovation, he says.

To a large degree, these businesses clustered organically, in no small part because Cleveland stands on the shores of Lake Erie, a very rich, biodiverse ecosystem. It also was inspired by Cleveland’s success in creating a biotechnology cluster.

“A study conducted a few years before our organization’s formation tried to define the next big play for economic development in this region, to build on Cleveland’s success in biotechnology,” Herzog explains. “It determined that this area already has a lot of water sector components — all that was needed was someone to galvanize it.”

He believes this two-pronged approach, combining economic development with marshaling teams of volunteers to monitor water quality, is unique to the CWA.

“There are other organizations nationwide that are similar to ours, as well as water-innovation clusters,” he notes. “But we think our approach is unique because we pursue cross-sector collaboration. Everything we do brings together folks from private research and public sectors.

“We want to be the Silicon Valley of water innovation — develop a high-density cluster of private-sector companies, high-intensity water users, water utilities and academic institutions that focus on water,” he adds. “We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely on our way to becoming that. All the pieces are here.”

Preserving a fragile ecosystem

The volunteer network is an outgrowth of the Great Lakes One Water partnership, created in 2016 to help develop regional approaches to solving pressing challenges facing the Great Lakes.

The health of the seven Great Lakes is no small matter; they’re the source of 84% of the county’s surface freshwater and provide drinking water for 40 million people in Canada and the United States.

Lake Erie’s water quality has improved over the decades, but it’s still the only Great Lake considered at-risk or declining in terms of water quality. It’s subject to algal blooms, combined sewer overflows, legacy pollution from various industries and high concentrations of microplastics, Herzog says. Furthermore, as the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, it’s the one human activity most easily impacts.  

“GLOW was looking for ways for Great Lakes communities to contribute more significantly to the health of the lakes on an individual level, but still collaborate for greater impact,” Herzog explains. “These volunteer groups have historically sprung up in response to local water quality issues.

“They collect really granular local data used to make decisions and inform restoration and development efforts in their communities. But because they were so locally focused, they often developed monitoring approaches in isolation from one another and the methodologies they used weren’t comparable.”

Standardized data collection

The problems with these inconsistent methodologies led the CWA to notch one of its biggest wins so far: The development of the Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework, which essentially is a set of standards for data collected by volunteers. Standardized collection methods and data will help the volunteer groups “tell a new regional story about the health of the Lake Erie watershed and support smart environmental education, research and management,” according to a CWA news release.

The standardization will bolster the credibility of data collected by ensuring volunteers sample water the same way by using the same methodologies. In turn, that will allow local and regional authorities to better leverage that data because they can be confident about its veracity, Herzog says.

”Standardization allows these volunteer groups to better collaborate and present a united front,” he explains. “Then the data can be integrated into a regional set that’s more useful and trustworthy.

“By supporting the volunteer network with quality and standardized water monitoring methodologies, we help enable collaboration at a regional level.”

Herzog says the volunteer organizations spurred the development of the data collection standards, not the CWA.

“They wanted to build greater trust in their data so it could be used by local decision-makers, state agencies and folks in professional research.” 

Volunteers are key

The Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework standards require volunteer groups to use sensor-based technology to test basic water chemistry. Many of these groups were already engaged in this type of monitoring but CWA, through a grant from the state of Ohio, has invested in additional sensors that are loaned long-term to LEVSN participants.

In other instances where sensors aren’t used, groups pay labs to analyze water samples.

“Some may have developed partnerships with labs where they get a good price for analysis,” Herzog notes. “But not all of the groups have access to labs, so that raises a barrier to the data collection they can do. So our goal is to expand the use of sensors.”

The volunteer groups generally collect data once a month, but some might do it twice a month. The number of sites the groups test varies greatly according to how many volunteers they can train.

Having volunteers out in the field is invaluable to CWA. For example, a volunteer group might identify water-quality issues related to upstream land management at construction sites, farms or golf courses. That provides a teachable moment where CWA can talk to landowners and explain the impact they’re having on water quality.

Testing pilot products

CWA — and sometimes their volunteers — also test-drive product prototypes for businesses. Within the last three years, three different technologies have been tested: one that monitors nutrient pollution, one that gauges the toxicity of harmful algal blooms and a field sensor that monitors basic water chemistry.

The latter sensor is what’s called an in situ sensor that that remains in the field — perhaps mounted on a buoy, bridge or dock, for example — to continually collect higher-frequency data at one site, as opposed to less frequent sample collections by volunteers at multiple sites.

“This is part of our broader effort to create a series of water technology test-beds to pilot new technologies in the water space,” Herzog explains. “Right now, the lowest hanging fruit is devices that can monitor the quality of surface water.”

To determine the veracity of the prototypes, the data they collect is compared to the data collected by the most-trusted standardized methods of gathering the same data.

The technologies tested aren’t necessarily rejected or approved by the CWA. Instead, the group provides feedback about how to improve products, Herzog says.

“For example, this past summer we piloted (tested) technology that measures the toxicity of algal blooms,” Herzog says. “It compared really well to lab methods, so this year we’re repiloting a modified product that can detect a larger range of algal toxins.”

Even if technologies perform similarly to products already in use, they might offer advantages such as a lower price, easier usage, better portability, the ability to produce results faster and so forth, he notes.

CWA views the network of volunteers as an extension of its accelerator test beds.

“They plug into it,” Herzog notes. “Some companies might want volunteers to test their technologies, depending on the test case. For example, one technology might be used for long-term deployment on a buoy in a lake and others might be used to test water quality in a backyard.”

Creating a “smart” lake

CWA’s ultimate goal is to make Lake Erie the most digitally connected freshwater body in the world. That effort is already underway via a project called Smart Lake Erie Watershed, which will rely in part on organization-tested technologies, Herzog notes.

It’s the first project of its kind in the Great Lakes region and will improve the ability to monitor and manage area waterways.

“LEVSN and our accelerator test beds are part of a broader effort to create a Smart Lake Erie, which will allow us to scale the amount of data collected across Lake Erie and its watersheds,” he says. “It also will connect that data with decision-makers and help inform how we manage our water resources.”

The program will rely on a wireless network designed to receive data from tens of thousands of remotely deployed sensors, some of which could be located up to 20 to 30 miles on the open waters of Lake Erie. The data then will be uploaded to a cloud-based platform, where it can be analyzed.

The sensors will detect things such as chemical spills, sewage overflows and toxic algal blooms.

Herzog says CWA hopes the program can serve as a model for other coastal communities to build their own monitoring networks, which would help them strengthen their water infrastructure management efforts.


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