Keep a Close Eye on Water Monitoring

Integrated catchment management and technology advances are changing the face of water monitoring. Dr Gareth Evans casts his eye across the industry.

Developments in sensors and communication systems now open up the possibility of faster, easier and more-comprehensive monitoring regimes at hitherto out-of-the-way, remote locations. Importantly this is happening at a time when burgeoning EU legislation is increasingly providing an effective mandate for exactly that.

While it may not be exactly what you would call the "perfect storm", it seems the combination of the clear objectives established by the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the upsurge of innovative data-logging solutions and the emphasis on energy efficiency has occurred at precisely the right time.

Comprehensive catchment monitoring

Designed to ensure the long-term health of the region's water resources, the WFD is the largest and most wide-reaching piece of legislation to affect the European water industry. Encompassing environmental, economic and social considerations, it will undoubtedly form the prime driver for sustainable management over the coming decades, but it will also necessitate some concomitant changes in conventional thinking. Perhaps the most far-reaching of these lies at the very core of the directive, with its essential focus on catchments.

By requiring that all inland and coastal waters within predefined river basins achieve "good" status at least by 2015, the balance inevitably shifts towards holistic management, with this overarching quality goal being achieved through pollution control, flood / drought mitigation and the enhancement of biodiversity.

"There has been an upsurge of innovative data-logging solutions with an emphasis on energy efficiency."

As industry consultant Jim Miller explains, this all bodes well for monitoring.

"We're seeing all sorts of new approaches being developed and I don't think anyone's in any doubt that pollution and water quality are set to be really big over the next decade.

"Everyone needs to know how clean 'their' bit of the system is – whether that's bathing waters, drinking supplies or discharges – and we're getting to see joined-up thinking at last. Monitoring is the key."

Scope for innovation

Fellow independent Bevan Rees agrees, arguing that the range of activities and parameters needing to be monitored, and the range of techniques likely to be employed, make it an area that is ripe for further growth.

"It's become a more complex issue now – there's all the biology and hydro-morphology to consider, as well as physical and chemical factors too. There's the long-term strategic approach to look for developing trends and changes in water quality and use, what you might call "core" monitoring – the routine and investigative stuff – groundwater-specific measurements and then for sensitive areas, perhaps habitat-based monitoring too. That's before you've included things like soil moisture and rainfall in the mix. We've seen a lot of innovation in the field already."

He points to the rise of solutions from fields as disparate as biotechnology and communication. "CSI Seaside was the game changer; it was a real first and it showed us what forensic DNA techniques could do for pollution monitoring and we've seen a huge boom in the use of wireless technology and cellular networks. They've begun to revolutionise monitoring and there's bound to be more to come."

"The WFD is the most wide-reaching piece of legislation to affect the European water industry."

There have been parallel developments made in a range of other relevant technologies too, including the likes of water sampling, contaminant spectroscopy, pathogen detection, GPRS telemetry, flow metering and data-loggers.

In addition, as the primary focus has tended to move away from localised monitoring solutions, towards a greater degree of centralisation, automated reporting systems and the data-handling processes that underpin them have also been evolving apace.

The low-carbon dividend

One area in particular to benefit from the wave of recent innovation is the monitoring of remote sites. Historically, being located off-grid inevitably complicated routine data collection, and even where power was available, the inherent limitations of the available systems, most especially their demand for maintenance and regular recalibration, often made it somewhat problematic. While the rise of more robust sensor technology on the one hand has reduced much of the need for the latter, the decade's wider quest for low-carbon energy efficiency has yielded workable solutions to the former. It is an important development, and it brings significant benefits since it smoothes the way for monitoring regimes rooted in continuous – rather than episodic – sampling, to help meet the new demands for enhanced data acquisition in the field.

Apart from the obvious benefit that continuous monitoring brings in terms of the larger data-set it provides, it has one particular advantage over discrete spot measurements; it makes it possible to investigate the cycle of cause and effect. With quality the watchword across the catchment, having the tools to monitor, identify and subsequently trace sources of pollution has assumed ever-greater importance, making the rise of energy efficient, stand-alone equipment particularly timely. Such low power systems, capable of amassing, storing and then transmitting remote information have applications at every step of hydrological monitoring, from precipitation measurement for flood / drought planning, through to quality considerations at receiving waters – and all stages in between.

Stakeholders and SMS

"It's not just the industry itself that's going to be the beneficiary," says Miller. "Everyone's interested in water quality and with all the talk of climate change, people are just as worried about floods and droughts. Having all this information to hand is going to mean much easier access for stakeholders. We're already talking about online monitoring in real-time and automated SMS alerts – and that's just the beginning."

"The WFD has been designed to encourage active public involvement and consultation in developing local strategies for flood prevention."

One notably important feature of the WFD is that is has been designed to encourage active public involvement and consultation in developing local strategies for flood prevention and pollution control to ensure that the full economic, environmental and social implications are properly reflected. However, Miller believes that the directive's holistic approach to monitoring could ultimately benefit a much wider range of issues, citing the potential for planning decisions to be taken on developments in the light of much greater understanding of specific water conditions as a prime example.

"After the events of the last few years, the sort of effect any new large construction work is likely to have on drainage and demand has become a hot topic," he explains. "Effective monitoring should make sure that the decision-makers have access to the right information in the first place, but put it out there in the public domain, and it'll help reassure people too."

It seems the industry is not alone in wanting to keep a close eye on water monitoring.