June 24, 2011

The Newfoundland and Labrador Water Resources Management Division developed real-time monitoring because it was impractical to regularly test water quality in remote locations.

FEATURE | Sewer and Watermain/Water & Wastewater

Newfoundland agency in talks with NATO on use of water quality monitoring technology

When the seed for a real-time water quality monitoring program was planted by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) over a decade ago, the objective was to monitor lakes, rivers and streams near major industrial operations in remote regions of the province.

“We wanted to know the impact of major mining activities on nearby lakes and rivers,” says Haseen Khan, director of the Water Resources Management Division (WRMD) of the province’s Department of Environment and Conservation.

At the time, no one expected the program would catch the eye of North Atlantic Treaty Organization for applications in the Middle East, but by 2005 NATO saw a fit for the province’s technology with the monitoring of the Nile River for “environmental security,” says Khan.

The treaty organization is currently in talks with the WRMD to use its technology to monitor the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in Jordan. The WRMD has also worked through the European Space Agency to integrate real-time water quality monitoring technology with remote sensing technology for environmental security in Egypt.

What makes the NL-developed technology so attractive to the international community? There are other continuous water quality monitoring systems but the WRMD’s is unique because it transmits its findings via satellite from remote locations in near real time.

Sensors placed in the water provide information to electronic hardware called data loggers. The sensors are capable of measuring a number of water-quality parameters, including: water temperature, pH level, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. “The objective is to provide a fingerprint of the water quality,” says Khan.

Data is then transmitted via satellite, he says, adding that monitoring systems can also transmit data via cellular and landline phone systems.

Khan says the idea for the program was developed in the 1990s in part because flying into remote sites by helicopter to take water samples was impractical. Back then, real-time water quality monitoring was not new, but reporting it in real time was.

The WRMD developed software to measure water levels in real-time but continued to upgrade the software for comprehensive water quality measurement, he says.

The monitoring program proved its worth at such remote regions as Vale Inco’s nickel mines in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador. “We wanted to develop an early warning system.”

The WRMD initially met with some reluctance from industry, fearing degradation in waterways near their operations might result in punitive measures, but the division made it clear that it wasn’t going to “come after” companies for environmental infractions. “We wanted to work together with industry to minimize environmental impact.”

Today, the provincial government operates a number of stations throughout the province in partnership between WRMD and Environment Canada.

While most of the province’s real-time water quality stations are programmed to sample water hourly, in urban areas sampling is more frequent. In 2001, the WRMD set up its first near real-time water quality monitoring station as a pilot project at Leary’s Brook in St. John’s.

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