Watching Water

E-mail Melanie Martella

This week is National Groundwater Awareness week and March 22 is the UN's World Water Day that, this year, has the theme of water quality. So it's only fitting to spend some time talking about how monitoring surface water supplies and groundwater supplies can help us conserve and efficiently use this critical resource.

Because you can't manage what you can't measure, any water management approach requires a raft of sensor, DA, and analysis technologies to make it work. We have a limited supply of freshwater, but the supply of potable freshwater is even smaller, with water contaminated by agricultural run off, industrial waste, and naturally occurring minerals. Very small amounts of arsenic in drinking water can cause health problems, for instance, leading the World Health Organization to define 0.01 mg/L as the maximum safe concentration of arsenic in drinking water. Unfortunately for those of us in northern New England, our geology can result in our wells becoming contaminated with arsenic, so this isn't just a developing world problem.

Great strides have been, and are, being made in developing instruments capable of assessing water quality rapidly and in situ and this puts valuable tools in the hands of utilities, governmental agencies, and others tasked with keeping our water safe to drink and to use.

Knowing where and how large those water flows are, especially considering that river flows are changing, is key to assessing the water supply which is, in turn, important when apportioning water for agricultural and other uses. Weather patterns are changing, which is affecting aquifer replenishment and snowpack amounts. The systems that are being put in place to monitor these water sources are increasingly sophisticated, and the project to monitor the Sierra Nevada snowpack in California is a good example of this.

And that's before we even talk about the systems in place to manage the water distribution system itself, including monitoring for leaks within the distribution system infrastructure as well as conservation tools for utilities and consumers.

In sum, managing water is a highly complex endeavor that is being aided by smart engineering. It's also an endeavor that will change as our water supplies fluctuate and as our needs for our water supplies change.

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