Water quality monitoring: more than just data

“There are reasons people love it, why they want to stay, why this is a community worth fighting for.

That’s Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, in a recent interview. Her quote points to an important truth. When focusing on ecological crises, like the water contamination in Flint, MI, we all too often lose sight of a situation’s underlying humanity. 

But this doesn’t mean that data—like water quality monitoring data—can be overlooked. As long as we are aware of the pitfalls of viewing crises through a solely numerical lens, data does not diminish the individual experience. Rather, data can augment an individual’s story. And, because real people are at the heart of every tragedy, empowering people with data can be at the heart of the solution.

Let’s examine water quality monitoring in the U.S., with a particular focus on Flint, to learn more.

Water, water everywhere… 

Citizens protest Flint, MI water quality
Flint residents protest living conditions outside a recent GOP debate (Source: ABCNews)

The water quality of Flint, MI has now been a source of national concern—and embarrassment—for over five years. High levels of lead and chlorine (among other contaminants) have resulted in cases of lead poisoning, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, and adverse mental health impacts. While the EPA has recently claimed that Flint’s water is safe, residents are apprehensive. This wariness is understandable. Why should the public place trust in a government that responded so ineffectually to a city’s initial cry for help?

This concern is merited, and not just because of the governmental response to Flint’s specific crisis. Each of the past 34 years, “between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.” Further, most of those impacted live in “rural, low income areas”—exactly the sort of locales that are underserved and overlooked by the government (if you’re curious about your own city, my colleague Jessica has written an awesome post about water quality rankings in the U.S.). When the government isn’t held accountable, change is slow to occur. For instance, as of 2016, “over three-quarters of small community water systems with serious health-related violations were [still] violating those rules three years later.”

When it comes to maintaining safe water quality, why is it so hard to ensure that the government behaves as it should?

A large part of the problem stems from an inability to monitor water quality. When people aren’t equipped with data, it’s harder for them to present compelling stories—stories which help hold governmental organizations accountable. But that’s not the fault of the people; testing water quality can be difficult. This article, for instance, outlines the saga of one woman trying to determine whether the water in her house is safe to drink. Another recent piece discusses the notably poor access to public well testing in the Northeast. 

Because the government is prone to inertia, it often takes concerted, community-driven pressure to affect change, and, when this pressure is dependent on data, it’s hard to exert. Revolutionizing citizens’ ability to measure water quality will be the key to ensuring that the government behaves effectively—and it will help bridge the gap between real people and impersonal statistics. 

That cool refreshing drink?

Water quality monitoring can involve taking water samples or monitoring continuously
Water quality monitoring can often reveal contaminants that are otherwise invisible (Source: Indiamart)

To think about how this can be done, it’s vital to understand what determines water quality. Although there are so many factors to consider that coming to a thorough understanding of water quality monitoring can feel impossible, most of them fall into one of four categories: soluble metals, dissolved chemicals, bacterial contaminants, and water characteristics. 

The first category is comprised of water soluble metals like arsenic, cadmium, mercury—and, of course, lead. According to water treatment solutions provider Lenntech, these metals get into the water supply through aging pipes, industrial and consumer waste, and acid rain.

The second category includes both pollutant chemicals and chemical additives. Common pollutant chemicals are things like pesticides and herbicides, as well as naturally occurring chemicals like nitrates and sulfur dioxides. Some chemical additives are intentionally introduced into the water supply so as to improve public health outcomes. Fluoride,  for instance, strengthens teeth. And chlorine—like the chlorine in your local swimming pool—is added as a disinfectant.

The third category, bacterial contaminants, can be extremely varied; there are innumerable types of bacteria that can be present in water. However, the most concerning bacteria include Enterococcus, Fecal coliform, and E. coli. Essentially, these bacteria are introduced to the water supply through unsanitary practices.

The final category, water characteristics, refers to the attributes of the water itself: things like temperature, flow rate, pH, and turbidity. When one thinks of water quality, these are the elements that most immediately come to mind.

It’s important to realize that these aspects are strongly interrelated. Water characteristics like temperature, for instance, often determine the extent to which bacteria can survive. Or, in another case, responses to the presence of bacteria can actually result over-chlorination. In fact, in Flint, the presence of high levels of bacteria resulted in the deployment of unusually high amounts of chlorine into the water supply.

An Overview of Water Quality Monitoring Options

A researcher uses a multi-parameter sonde to test water quality
Multi-parameter sondes can help researchers, and citizen scientists, gain insight into water quality characteristics (Source: Xylem Analytics)

With the aforementioned categories and relationships in mind, I conducted research into several water quality monitoring options (please see here for a similar investigation into air quality monitoring).

I evaluated sensor options based on five factors: breadth of measurements, power source, data output, form factor, and price. These elements are crucial to those who want to know how to best monitor their water.

In determining if a sensor is appropriate for a certain situation, one must know what it measures, how it runs, how it provides data, where it can be located, and if it can be afforded. Please note that the sensors listed in this table only represent a small sample of the available options:

UsagePower OptionsData OutputForm FactorPrice
YSI Exo3 Multi Parameter SondeAmmonium, Pressure, Blue Green Algae (PC & PE), Chloride, Chlorophyll, Conductivity, Dissolved Oxygen, fDOM, Nitrate, ORP, pH, Salinity, Temperature, Turbidity 2 Alkaline batteries Bluetooth, RS 485, RS 232, or Modbus 3.00 x 23 inches. Enclosed in a case$5000+
ATI Metrinet Multi Parameter SondeChlorine, Chlorine Dioxide, Turbidity, pH, Conductivity, ORP, Dissolved Oxygen, Fluoride, Peracetic Acid, Hydrogen Peroxide 24 V battery, 12 V batteryCellular modem, Wi Fi, wired Modbus, Ethernet/IP, Profibus DP, Internal MicroSD card14 x 14 inches
Available upon request
Valeport Water SensorConductivity, Pressure, Temperature, Turbidity, Fluorometer, Dissolved Oxygen, pH, ORP8 x D cells, 1.5 V alkaline battery, 3.6 V lithium batteryRS232, RS485, RS422, Optional FSK and USB connection150mm x 590mm, Titanium and acetal enclosure optionsAvailable upon request
Libellium (WaspMote) Smart Water Board Temperature
Dissolved Oxygen
Wide variety of other sensors
Solar powered external panel option, Optional external battery module, 3.3V battery, 5V battery 802.15.4 MHz, 868 MHz, 900 MHz, WiFi, 4G, Sigfox, LoRaWAN, RS 232, RS 485, Modbus, CAN Bus73.5mm x 51mm x 1.3mm, Enclosed in a case$1091
EnviroDIY Mayfly Discharge, Turbidity, Conductivity, Chloride, Total Suspended Solids 3.3 V battery w/ additional 5 V boost circuitry, Solar lipo battery, microUSB portmicroSD memory card, Arduino IDE software, XBee module 3.7 x 2.6 inches, Comes uncovered but an enclosure is available$60
Omega CDH SD11Temperature, Conductivity, Total Suspended Solids, Salinity 3 AAA batteries, 100 240 VAC 9Vdc AC/DC adaptor microSD memory card, BNC connector (radio)180mm x 58mm x 32mm, ABS body$386
Hydrolab HL7 Multi Parameter SondeTemperature, Conductivity, Depth, pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Turbidity, ORP, Blue Green Algae, Chlorophyll A, Ammonium, Nitrate, Chloride 4 D batteriesUSB, SDI12, RS232, RS485, RS232 TTY26 x 6.5 inches~$500

When examining the above table, I noticed two overarching water quality trends—trends which provide useful insight into my earlier question of why it’s so hard for citizens to monitor water quality.

The first is that there is a hierarchy of measurement difficulty: measuring water characteristics is far easier than measuring chemical pollutants and additives, and measuring chemical pollutants and additives is far easier than measuring bacterial characteristics. In fact, while nearly all of the sensors measure water characteristics, and many measure chemical pollutants and additives, none measure bacterial contamination. This makes sense. Measuring bacterial contamination is usually done through specific test kits / laboratory analysis.

The second trend is the fact that the cost of sensors increases sharply as the number of characteristics increases. Simply examine the difference in price between the YSI EXO3 Multi-Parameter Sonde—which measures over 13 metrics—and the EnviroDIY Mayfly Data Logger, which measures 6. If someone wants a robust understanding of their water, they must be willing and able to pay.

These two trends explain why it’s so hard for citizens to put pressure on governmental agencies to enact change. First, making measurements is a difficult task in and of itself, and, second, citizens often lack the funds necessary to purchase multivariate sensors. Fortunately, however, there are several reasons to be optimistic. 

Clearing Things Up

The first reason for my optimism is the fact that, while it may be difficult to measure bacterial contamination, it’s easier to measure chemical pollutants, and easier still to measure water characteristics. These factors are vital in determining the quality of one’s water. Further, once generated, data can be submitted to organizations like the Water Quality Exchange (WQX) to improve publically accessible water quality data. The corollary to this is that someone else may have provided data for your area.

I want to note here that Temboo offers the Kosmos environmental engagement platform, a no-code software service for connected sensor systems. Kosmos can aid citizen scientists, NGOs, and even governments in the sort of data generation mentioned above. Kosmos helps users gain insights about sensor performance, assists in data visualization, and has a built-in alert system to notify users when certain rule conditions are triggered. 

A second reason to be optimistic is the fact that one-off monitoring, even of difficult to monitor criteria, is far more affordable. This kit, for instance, tests for dissolved Lead, Iron, Copper, and Mercury. Another kit tests for the presence of E. coli and Coliform bacteria. Both are available for under $30 dollars. 

A third reason for optimism is the fact that there are organizations dedicated to preventing and proactively responding to crises like Flint and Newark. Many of these organizations, like the EWG Tap Water Database or the Water Quality Portal, focus on making water quality data more accessible to the general public.

Other organizations, most notably Clean Water Action, focus on utilizing grassroots and community-centered tactics to elect pro-environment officials and affect legislative change. Notably, CWA scored a win against polluters with a 2012 lawsuit against fracking wastewater dumping—“the first time a federal court case has been filed to stop the current discharge of Marcellus drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania.” The case holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the impact of civic engagement. Second, I’m from Pennsylvania; I’ve seen first-hand the water pollution that can come about from fracking.

Finally, because water quality monitoring is currently difficult and expensive, there is a large incentive for companies to develop affordable and efficient ways of monitoring water quality. Lishtot, for instance, has had success with its TestDrop product, which utilizes proprietary “electric field sensors to determine the profile / quality of a given water sample.” The success of this product earned Lishtot a stop on Time Magazine’s 2018 list of the 50 Most Genius Companies. Clearly, the market is responsive to such products. Temboo is prepared to integrate these products into Kosmos as they are developed.

It is my hope that the four factors mentioned above will help improve and avoid Flint-like situations in the future. If citizens know what they need to monitor, are able to efficiently monitor it, and are able to get involved in civic engagement, future harm can be reduced. Crises can potentially be averted entirely. But, perhaps most importantly, citizens will be empowered to tell data-driven stories, stories which inspire action. This will improve people’s ability to avoid illness, engage civically, and create change.

Conclusion: Thinking (and Drinking) Globally

The earth is known as the blue planet due to its abundance of water
Earth may be known as the Blue Planet, but fresh, clean water is still relatively scarce (Source: Fineartamerica)

Although the Flint crisis is ongoing, Mayor Karen Weaver has talked about the “tremendous progress” that has been made. It’s certainly important to acknowledge progress and to laud the extraordinary efforts of the many people fighting to better the situation. But I feel that greater progress will occur when water quality monitoring is democratized globally. 

Because, when talking about water quality monitoring, it’s important to maintain perspective. Despite the significant water quality issues faced in the U.S., we should be thankful for our comparatively excellent water. In fact, the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Water Quality Index ranks water quality in the U.S. as tied for 2nd best in the world (tied with 8 other countries, and behind Finland). According to Water.org, 785 million people around the world live without access to safe water, and 1 million people die every year as a result of water quality, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases.

The extent of this problem is staggering. But to me, this only reiterates the need for the democratization of water quality monitoring. Given the government intransigence in places like the U.S., simply imagine the cost and difficulty of changing things elsewhere in the world—especially if the citizens of the country in question don’t have the resources to monitor water quality themselves.

In short: water quality monitoring can, and should, be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Finally—please feel free to shoot us a message about this post or any other. And, if you learned something, share it with friends, family, or co-workers. We provide ecologically-focused educational content here on our blog, every week. And, if you’d like to learn more about our no-code environmental engagement platform, Kosmos—or know of a person or organization who might be interested—the following post can help you learn more.