Public-private partnership brings monitoring efforts to a Colorado river
No one could explain it—thousands of dead fish washed up on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River where it runs through the city of Fort Collins, Colorado. Even a months-long investigation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife could not determine a definitive cause, in part because there simply was not enough water quality data to understand what was happening in the river at the time of the kill.
That was in 2018. Today, the city receives a continuous stream of comprehensive water quality data from seven remote monitoring sites along the section of the river that runs through town. Staff monitors multiple parameters in real time, and if a critical event occurs, the source of the change will be easier to identify.
Fort Collins and other entities have monitored water quality in the Poudre River for years. The river is a resource shared by farmers, recreators, nature lovers and local businesses. However, monitoring efforts have typically been limited to an intermittent collection of samples delivered to a lab for analysis.
The remote-monitoring stations are the result of a public-private partnership that includes the city’s storm water and water quality divisions, Colorado State University and In-Situ Inc., a global water monitoring equipment manufacturer also based in the city.
The partnership originated with a series of conversations: Basil Hamdan, the city’s storm water quality engineer, met Matt Ross, an assistant professor in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, at a conference, and the two discussed how they might work together to collect data from the river. Separately, In-Situ Application Development Manager Eric Robinson met both Hamdan and Ross and discussed with them how the company might help them reach their monitoring goals.
At each monitoring station, an In-Situ Aqua TROLL 500 or Aqua TROLL 600 Multiparameter Sonde collects data on temperature, turbidity, depth, pH/ORP, dissolved oxygen and conductivity. A telemetry unit in each installation relays data to HydroVu, In-Situ’s cloud-based data services platform, for analysis.
The partners worked together to identify windows of influence where inflow had the potential to affect water quality in the river. Then they selected existing bridges and other structures to which installations could be secured and sleuthed out the thalweg at each location so instrumentation could be positioned at points of greatest flow. Because the installations incorporate battery-operated telemetry, there was no need for solar panels or other infrastructure to provide power, which gave them greater flexibility in choice of sites.
While both the city and CSU have direct access to live-steaming data coming from the installations, CSU processes and manages the raw data and shares it with the city. Since joining the university’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability last year, Ross has had a keen interest in developing a research program around the Poudre River. He describes it as a classic western river, faced with challenges of fire, agricultural diversions, urban impacts and drought, and says long-term sensor deployments will produce high-quality data for trend analysis, immediate decision support and as an educational tool.
“I’m interested in looking at impacts over time,” Ross said, “Frequency of low-flow years and anoxic events within those years; how turbidity is changing and where those changes are happening – but also building a decision-support system that can inform action that day or that week and help the city get out in front of water quality impacts.”
Where Things Stand
Now months into the project, Ross and his students marvel at the benefits of remote data collection in the era of COVID-19.
“Having these sensors on telemetry has allowed us to continue working with the data without breaking quarantine,” Ross said. “And we hope to have more of these units out and running soon.”
The city has also continued its monitoring efforts despite the shutdown.
“Social distancing hasn’t affected our ability to remotely access the data, since one person can easily go out and service the sondes,” Hamdan said. “We’re proceeding with plans to update and expand the network as soon as additional funding becomes available.”
Hamdan added that the team is creating routines to QA/QC the data and building a platform on which to share the data with others.
Remote Monitoring Simplified
A new product Robinson looks forward to pulling into the Poudre River project and others is the company’s next-gen telemetry device, VuLink, a cellular and satellite telemetry device designed to fit and mount in a 2-inch/50-mm tube or well for data transmission.
VuLink’s one-press setup indicates instrument status, battery life and connectivity. Cellular coverage across multiple networks and an in-well Iridium satellite version with customized data compression make it a global device. Two-to-five times the battery life of similar devices, using alkaline or lithium batteries, supports extended deployment.
“Remote monitoring is key to understanding what happened in the water before, during or after an event,” Robinson said. “It’s like filming something as opposed to taking a picture of it. Communities able to protect their rivers and watersheds in that way are better positioned for the long term.”
Looking Toward the Future
The Poudre River monitoring project has no end date, and the partners plan to install as many as 25 monitoring stations along the river and its tributaries, and expand public outreach.
Both Ross and Hamdan see public engagement as an essential part of the project.
“My lab is not only focused on research and building processes to give the city clean data but also on making that data more accessible through visualizations and videos,” Ross said. “We want people to be able to see it and understand it.”
For communities that might want to replicate the partnership, Robinson suggests that three components must be present: a city culture that welcomes collaboration with other entities; academic professionals who have a clear vision of what they wish to accomplish; and a technical partner, like In-Situ, nimble enough to provide on-the-ground technical support.
“We’re committed to helping agencies and municipalities be proactive in understanding and protecting water quality in their communities,” Robinson said. “So far, this partnership has worked extremely well and could serve as a model for other areas with water resources critical to their environmental and economic health.”