Crystal Clear Monitoring

From microbes to molluscs, researchers are becoming more creative with ways to monitor water. They could be just in time, as Gareth Evans reports.

Environmental monitoring has always been a feature of the water industry in one form or another, but as the world moves into the new post-Copenhagen decade and the question of quality dominates the sector, it now seems destined to assume even greater importance.

"Pollution and water quality are going to be really big beyond 2010," predicts private water consultant Jim Miller. "Things have got a lot more sophisticated across the board – coastal waters, drinking water and effluent treatment too.

"Bottom line is, you need to know how clean the water really is and we're beginning to see some very different approaches being taken to do that. I think some of them could have a very exciting future."

With water quality chosen as the theme for the UN's next World Water Day, it should come as no real surprise that monitoring has fast become a hotter topic than ever, nor that novel technologies are increasingly being brought to bear on the issue as a result.

CSI Seaside

After some time spent in the shadows, environmental biotechnology has become progressively more mainstream over recent years and as the 'CSI Seaside' project from the UK's Environment Agency (EA) shows, biotech tools offer some major monitoring benefits.

In a move that would scarcely seem out of place in any of those eponymous fictional TV crime labs, the EA has extended leading-edge DNA techniques to the task of monitoring and ultimately tackling the problem of polluted bathing waters. Said to be the first initiative of its kind anywhere in the world, the project brings microbial source tracking (MST) to the problem of identifying the origin of diffuse faecal matter in the water, allowing sewage to be quickly discriminated from manure or animal droppings.

"Pollution and water quality are going to be really big beyond 2010."

The basic principle behind MST involves screening laboratory-isolated DNA preparations for the presence of particular indicator bacteria, which are naturally either only human-specific or animal-specific, making it possible to determine the fundamental nature of the contamination. Ascertaining this obviously helps narrow down the potential cause, which in turn means that locating the actual source of the agricultural run-off or sewage discharge on the ground becomes quicker and easier.

Although 97% of beaches in England and Wales met European quality standards last year, the EA hopes that using this approach will empower the agency to tackle the handful that struggle with persistent pollution problems, especially after heavy downpours.

As Doug Wilson, head of EA water quality and monitoring commented on the initiative's launch, "by using forensic techniques, we can help pinpoint the exact causes of pollution and tackle them, helping us to make sure that water will continue to improve in future years for our bathers".

Lower-spec biotech

However, biotech monitoring does not have to be quite so high-spec. At the other end of the scale there is also scope for the use of naturally occurring species to provide a low-cost/low-tech, modern variation on the old "canary-in-a-coal-mine" theme.

A whole range of organisms have the natural ability to respond to a variety of pollutants in their aquatic environment which can be harnessed to allow contaminants to be detected and identified with surprising accuracy and sensitivity.

One of the most promising recent developments of this kind has enabled a group from the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC to use freshwater clams not only to identify pollutants, but also trace them back to their source.

"The market for sampling and analytical testing in the water industry appears reassuringly buoyant."

The idea is simple. Clams naturally bioaccumulate and biomagnify any toxins in the water as they feed, keeping a biological record of the chemicals locked up inside their bodies' own tissues. Placing them into tributaries within a given catchment area allows them to build up a living catalogue of the specific water course's pollution status, which can later be analysed back at the laboratory to yield an accurate picture of its overall quality. By fine-tuning the placement and distribution of these biological monitors and repeating the process, it becomes possible to begin to pinpoint the source of any pollutants detected – and ultimately eradicate or ameliorate them.

It has already been proven effective, detecting a now-banned pesticide in a Maryland stream, the source of which had been buried some years ago and has only now begun to leach into the water.

If the technique continues to build on these early successes there is a wide potential spectrum of applications to which it could be applied, its low cost utilisation of locally available, indigenous organisms making it as relevant for developing nations as developed ones.

Buoyant market

Between novel biological approaches such as these, and more conventional physical and chemical methods, the market for sampling and analytical testing in the water industry appears reassuringly buoyant – though cost-effectiveness is obviously now at a premium.

Part of the reason for this is the massive economic cost of the environmental degradation that can result from unchecked water pollution and excessive abstraction. In the Middle East and North African regions alone it runs to about $9bn a year according to Olcay Ünver, coordinator of the World Water Assessment Programme.

"The main driver on monitoring is increasingly stringent standards and a growing willingness on behalf of regulatory bodies to prosecute."

Moreover, the total economic loss in Africa as a whole due to a lack of clean water and basic sanitation rises to over three times as much – representing approximately 5% of GDP. Nor is this simply a problem for water-scarce or developing nations; the associated costs of restoring damaged aquatic ecosystems in the US has been put at over $60bn and this figure continues to rise, as more monitoring information becomes known.

The main driver on monitoring is, inevitably, increasingly stringent standards and a growing willingness on behalf of regulatory bodies to prosecute.

In 2008 the EA, for example, successfully brought more than 700 cases to court, which resulted in more than £5m in fines and costs; the net result has seen a continuing reduction in the number of serious environmental contamination events – a drop of 44% since 2001.

Nevertheless, Dr Paul Leinster, the EA's chief executive says he hopes they can do even better, recently commenting "we want to see higher fines for pollution incidents to provide a greater deterrent".

His is a call seemingly echoed by regulators across the globe, from the US, where 2010's changes to enforcement guidelines will target serious or repeated violations, to China, with its aim to establish advanced environmental monitoring during the span of the current Five-Year Plan.

With the regulators ever-more vigilant, the public consensus for environmental transparency firmly entrenched, and as Miller says, the "need to know how clean the water really is" clearly established, it is small wonder that monitoring has now gained such a high profile.