New Challenge: Put Technology to Work to Protect Drinking Water

Ellen Gilinsky Ellen Gilinsky

You likely remember when, this past summer, half a million people who live in the Toledo, Ohio, area were told not to drink the water coming out of their taps for several days. A state of emergency was declared because of a harmful algal bloom, which released toxins into the water that could have made many people ill.

Algal blooms like the one near Toledo are partly caused by an excessive amount of nutrients in the water – specifically, nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are essential for ecosystems, but too many of them in one place is bad news. Not only do harmful algal blooms pose huge risks for people’s health, they can also cause fish and other aquatic wildlife to die off.

Cleaning up drinking water after a harmful algal bloom can cost billions of dollars, and local economies can suffer. The U.S. tourism industry alone loses close to $1 billion each year when people choose not to fish, go boating or visit areas that have been affected. It’s one of our country’s biggest and most expensive environmental problems. It’s also a particularly tough one, since nutrients can travel from far upstream and in runoff, and collect in quieter waters like lakes or along coastlines.

That’s why a group of federal agencies and private partners – including our Office of Research and Development and our Office of Water – are announcing the Nutrient Sensor Challenge. The challenge will help accelerate the development of sensors that can be deployed in the environment to measure nutrients in our country’s waterways. Its goal is to have new, affordable sensors up and running by 2017.

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At EPA we run an innovative research program on nutrients management, at sites that range from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay. We’ve also been working with new technologies that can give us better information on nutrient pollution, including satellites and portable remote sensors.

There are a few big challenges we’ll need to reckon with to take the next step on nutrient pollution. We need to expand monitoring efforts and get even more information about where nutrients are coming from and where they’re building up. But our current technologies are too expensive to take to that kind of scale. We also need to ensure that any new monitoring effort is accurate and reliable, so we’re getting data we can trust.

The Nutrient Sensor Challenge puts these needs out to the world of technology developers. It will support efforts to create the kind of affordable, accurate and reliable sensors we need. It will also provide the organizations that participate with laboratory and field verification and help them showcase their innovation.

These kinds of partnerships keep our country’s science on the cutting edge, and help us take on big, complex problems, even at times like now when budgets are staying the same, or even shrinking. When we get the best minds in every sector working together, we can better protect the environment and human health.

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