A Sonde Solution

A Sonde Solution

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one in every three Americans gets their drinking water from waterways that are vulnerable to pollution or some sort of compromise in water quality.
Of course, when it comes to the issue of a sustainable drinking water source and how utilities can improve current practices and prepare for future challenges, we needn?t look further than the high profile example infamously provided by the City of Toledo, Ohio, last year. The ?Toledo water crisis,? as it is commonly referenced, affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents in Northwest Ohio last summer and was the subject of national media attention.

It was quickly determined that unsafe drinking water entering Toledo?s distribution system was caused by a harmful algal bloom that formed around the city?s intake in Lake Erie. The threat to drinking water standards prompted city officials throughout the region to issue ?Do Not Drink? advisories to the public and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to declare a state of emergency.

With thousands rushing to grocery stores to buy bottled water, and the Ohio National Guard stepping in to help in affected communities, the image of a public without access to clean water was on full display.
Perhaps it?s why many were quick to deem the situation a crisis. ?

Many also called it a wakeup call, including Toledo?s then Mayor D. Michael Collins, who even went as far as to compare the incident to 9/11, telling The Toledo Blade that ?While we didn?t have a terrorist attack, we had an environmental attack.?

But industry experts have since maintained that the threat of harmful algal blooms entering a city?s water intake is nothing new and merely an issue that needs more preventive action, rather than reaction.

LimnoTech worked with the city to develop a system by which various monitoring devices could be placed on a buoy near the Toledo?s intake in Lake Erie.

Toledo Aftermath ?

In Toledo, the first ?Do Not Drink? order was issued in the early morning hours of Aug. 2, but the ban was lifted and the situation was already over by Aug. 4. It was discovered that the algal bloom that developed at the water intake for a city treatment plant forced an overwhelming amount of microcystin ? a toxin common in algal blooms ? into the finished water. According to EPA, a primary cause of algal blooms is nutrient pollution, which causes high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, causing algae to grow at a rapid rate.?
Although the incident was resolved quickly, the water sector is examining methods currently employed for monitoring source water, whether the concern is algal blooms, pollution or other threats to water quality.
There?s already been movement at the federal level in an attempt to initiate funding for the necessary measures to better monitor water quality and measure levels of microcystin in source water. ?

In January, Ohio lawmakers reintroduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives aimed at addressing toxic algal blooms in drinking water sources, which would require the EPA to provide additional guidance on safe consumption limits, testing protocols and treatment methods. In March, AWWA Water Utility Council Chair Aurel Arndt testified in Congress calling for better management of nutrient pollution. And earlier this month, Ohio Gov. Kasich signed a bill aimed at reducing pollution contributing to Lake Erie algal blooms and better monitoring of water treatment plants.

Unseen Effort

At the municipal level, Toledo?s initiatives provide one example of preventive measures being taken to improve data connectivity and monitoring systems. In an effort likely unseen to much of the public ? compared to the eventual crisis that ensued ? the City of Toledo was actually in the process of developing new source water monitoring initiatives before the crisis hit.

In early 2014, the Toledo Department of Public Utilities (DPU) began working with LimnoTech, an environmental research and consulting firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that focuses on high-end environmental consulting for surface waters. The city wanted to develop a system that would give it better information related to water activity while having better connectivity with other groups in the region including surrounding utilities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?(NOAA) lab in Ann Arbor and other area research stations. ?

?Lake Erie is continually changing in water quality,? says Ed Verhamme, project engineer with LimnoTech. ?It?s very shallow and very prone to wind-driven resuspension. It?s a pretty dynamic source water environment and a lot of different things are changing water quality. The city wanted to have a better handle on what?s happening in the lake that can affect their source water quality.?? ?

LimnoTech worked with the city to develop a system by which various monitoring devices could be placed on a buoy near the intake. The buoy would consist of monitoring systems to measure wave heights (that could cause resuspension), wind conditions and water current to track which direction the water is moving. A camera with a live video feed would also be mounted on the buoy so that utility personnel could get a real time look at what?s happening near the intake. Once the buoys were deployed, data from each of the devices would be collected every 20 minutes and transmitted via a cell modem to a public website that hosts the data and that is viewed in real time by the utility.

Initially, Toledo DPU applied for a grant to help fund the project, but when that did not materialize, the city decided it was important to move forward regardless and fund the project itself. ?

According to Verhamme, when the crisis in August hit, the project turned into an operational need and the city was forced to pull every available resource in order to communicate to the public, as well as Ohio EPA, that it was aware of changing conditions on the lake.

?Even though it wasn?t installed before [the crisis], it was good that this had been in the planning stages so that it could be easily implemented within a couple days,? Verhamme says.

Within a week after the crisis, LimnoTech worked to deploy three water quality sondes near Toledo?s water intake ? one at the surface, another in the water intake crib and another at the pump station. Each one was able to monitor the bloom concentration at each location. Including two additional buoys previously deployed by NOAA, Verhamme says the plan is that by later in 2015, there will be about 20 monitoring systems online for both research and utility water monitoring, stretching from Monroe, Mich., to Cleveland.? ?

?It?s all about how we can take all these existing technologies and come up with a unified monitoring platform for a range of physical and chemical parameters,? Verhamme says. ?I think there were two sides to what was happening in Toledo [last year]. I think most people thought it was a treatment problem and that Toledo could have done more on the treatment side and that it was a technology issue in the plant itself. The amount of algae coming in was something that they hadn?t seen before.

?This sensor will allow them to prepare if something like this is going to happen again,? he says. ?It will allow them to know when an event is happening rather than waiting for a lab measurement to come back, and it will allow them to communicate to the public when they expect things to improve because they are monitoring data in real time.?


Future plans include deploying additional buoys at various locations across Lake Erie, but also in the works is connecting the data platform with Toledo?s SCADA system. This will allow Toledo DPU to set alerts or thresholds when monitoring algae movement on the lake or other water quality considerations. Verhamme says that initiative is anticipated to get underway later this year.

The other major component of the monitoring buoys, Verhamme says, is the ability to connect with other research stations and utilities. However, the challenge to nearby utilities is that there is a more significant cost consideration given the budgets of smaller communities around the Toledo area compared to the larger Toledo DPU.

The City of Oregon, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, began viewing the results of the monitoring devices on Toledo DPU?s website last year. Doug Wagner, superintendent of water for Oregon, says viewing that data already gives an accurate indication of what is happening on the lake at a given time. Oregon is currently in the process of deploying its own sonde to get more specific information related to water at its intake, which is located about a mile away from the Toledo DPU intake.

With a system servicing more than 25,000 people, Wagner says Oregon decided to move forward with deploying its own monitoring system, as he believes the ability to monitor the city?s intake as well as surrounding areas, simultaneously, will provide a clearer representation of lake conditions.

?By having the ability to view all the data in one location, we?ll be able to tell where the concentration of algae is,? he says. ?And by tying all this data together, we?ll have a better sense of the direction [the algae] is moving.??

Across the United States

According to Wagner, the City of Oregon has been dealing with algal blooms in Lake Erie since 2010 and has been well aware that a situation could turn problematic. While that is the case, it seems the Toledo crisis has prompted more groups to take action.

Just earlier this month, NASA announced a partnership with EPA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey to transform satellite data designed to probe ocean biology into information that will be used to view and analyze harmful freshwater algal blooms.

As maintaining water quality remains just as pertinent as water quantity across the United States, it will be interesting to see what other new initiatives, if any, are implemented by utilities to avert a ?crisis? of their own.

Andrew Farr
is the associate editor of

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