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New tech could improve bacteria monitoring in US waterways

The nation's waterways could soon be benefitting from a new "super gauge" from the USGS, which measures bacteria levels in the water.
Many people fish, boat and swim in the country's waterways, but monitoring their bacteria levels can be a time-consuming process. New technology seeks to change that and provide the most up-to-date information, by tracking bacteria levels every five minutes.
The new "super gauge" is currently being used on the Anacostia River, which runs along the border between Maryland and Washington, D.C. If it works there, the technology could be deployed to other sites around the country.
This is part of a complex new “super gauge” just installed on the Anacostia River, which runs along part of the Maryland and Washington, D.C. border. The waters that drain into the river stretch across a 100-square mile watershed and the "super gauge" could help to more accurately monitor bacteria levels in the river.
Posted at 11:53 AM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 17:20:46-04

BLADENSBURG, Md. — The ebb and flow of America’s waterways wind their way across a landscape older than the nation itself.

“People are drawn to our rivers, drawn to our lakes,” said Chad Wagner, with the U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater and Stream Flow Information Program.

Exactly what is in those waters is something new technology may be able to answer more accurately than ever before.

“That goes to the heart of what we are we're trying to do with our project,” said Jonathan Dillow, a USGS hydrologist.

That project involves a device, which is part of a complex new “super gauge” just installed on the Anacostia River. Bordering Maryland and Washington, D.C., the waters that drain into the river stretch across a 100-square mile watershed.

“It's a historic waterway,” Dillow said.

It is a historically polluted one, as well. However, the new super gauge getting tested there could revolutionize how bacteria levels in waterways all across the country are monitored.

“It's a health risk and it's something to be avoided, if at all possible,” Dillow said.

There are 2,100 USGS sites across the country, where water quality is monitored. How they are checked for bacteria right now can be a time-consuming process.

“We would have to go out and physically take samples, bring them back to the lab and analyze those for bacteria,” Wagner said.

That process can create a lag time. A heavy rainfall, for example, can change bacteria conditions between the time a sample is taken and when the results come back. This new super gauge monitors bacteria levels continuously and sends an electronic reading back every five minutes.

“From a national perspective, having these water quality sites, especially provided in real-time, allow water managers to be alerted to particular issues,” Wagner said.

That information then goes up on a publicly accessible website, letting people know if it’s safe to fish, boat, or swim in the river at any given time. Further down the line, the USGS says the information collected could also help it create forecasts for whether the bacteria levels will be safe say for an upcoming weekend.

“If we're successful, we probably won't be forecasting specific concentrations of bacteria, let's say, but more health risk factors, you know, whether it's a low risk, medium risk, high risk,” Dillow said.

The site on the Anacostia is the first in the nation and if it works during this testing period. The technology could be deployed to other rivers around the country.

“We're going to be moving across the country,” Wagner said.

It’s potentially a new generation of technology helping the next generation navigate the nation’s waters.