Real-Time Water Monitoring Data Challenging for Regulators

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Amena H. Saiyid

Aug. 19 — Real-time monitoring of water quality will yield voluminous data, but interpreting it for assessment or compliance purposes is a challenge, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and state water agencies said.

“Instantaneous results from real-time monitoring can be challenging. How do we interpret this data in a meaningful way?” David Hindin, EPA's senior policy director for innovation and the agency's Next Generation Compliance initiative, asked. He raised the question Aug. 17 at the annual meeting of the Association of Clean Water Administrators in Seattle.

The use of advanced monitoring techniques, he said, would improve the ability of states and the EPA to prevent, treat and reduce pollution before it causes a water quality violation. It also would help in assessing environmental quality and targeting resources, preventing pollution hot spots from developing, providing for more transparency, engaging the public in monitoring activities and helping to determine compliance with underlying environmental laws.

At the same time, he cautioned about the challenges associated with having such large volumes of data. For one, members of the public may identify pollution problems based on data that isn't credible because it wasn't collected using established EPA or state monitoring protocols. He also said data may be collected from a monitoring device of which the EPA or the state is unaware, or real-time data may be incorrectly interpreted for standards that are based on longer-term averages, such as the daily average for a particular pollutant.

Derek Smithee, water quality programs division chief for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said states and the EPA need to rethink protocols they have been using for monitoring and measuring.

“Technology will make our life easier, but data interpretation will become more difficult and important,” he said.

Smithee said more time would be spent in the office on developing and ensuring quality control and less time in the field.

He also said continuous monitoring in real time should give states an opportunity to get a more accurate picture of real-time effects from real-time problems. It is better, he said, to collect data ahead of time rather than being forced by litigation to collect data to defend one's position.

Relevant Data Needed

Jennifer Wigal, water quality program manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said it is “cool” to get all this information, but her priority is to get “relevant data” that will help implement the regulatory programs, conduct investigations or get a general picture of water quality.

“I want to know what data I am getting before I agree to commit resources to it,” Wigal said.

She said real-time data can be used for investigating what's going on in a particular location, whether chemicals are present in the waters and, if so, with what frequency. Such data can be used to assess water quality, develop efficacy of restoration plans, develop limits and ultimately determine compliance.

However, Smithee cautioned that managers developing water quality standards should focus on the effects, duration and magnitude of pollution that the monitors are picking up rather than the use of this data for compliance purposes.

Wigal said real-time data allows states to set flow-based limits or daily limits for pollutants, but the real question is, “Will the EPA allow states to be creative with the data?”

In Oregon, she said, the DEQ has placed probes at the Bureau of Reclamation's station to collect real-time data on harmful algal blooms, such as the ones that contaminated drinking water supplies in Toledo a year ago. These probes, she said, measure a number of factors that contribute to algal blooms. These include chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, water temperature, depth and turbidity.

“We've got to have a plan. That’s the biggest challenge to make sure the chicken doesn’t get too far ahead of the egg or the egg doesn't get too far ahead of the chicken,” she said.

Nancy Sonafrank, water quality standards program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, questioned Hindin and other state officials about storing the reams of data that is not used for filling out discharge monitoring reports.

Currently, she said, discharge monitoring reports require only end-of-pipe measurements of effluent, but, “What do we do with water quality data that is collected upstream of the pipe or further downstream from it?”

Recommendations for Data Use

Hindin said an EPA-state workgroup he chaired with Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles was set up in 2015 to tackle some of the challenges arising from a surge of data. The workgroup developed five recommendations:

  •  set up a third-party certification program along the lines of existing programs, such as EnergyStar or WaterSense, to certify technology performance because manufacturers' claims about monitoring devices aren't always reliable;
  •  form a network of EPA scientists and engineers to screen new technology as it appears in the market, provide technical guidance and review technologies for use in pilot programs;
  •  develop guidance for using data from emerging sensors using visual tools, graphics and mobile applications;
  •  create standards for data collection, so the data can be shared across diverse entities; and
  •  develop an approval process, so data gleaned from devices can be used for monitoring and regulatory purposes.

Susan Holdsworth, monitoring branch chief for the EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, reassured state officials who had concerns about storage. Holdsworth also told state officials who had concerns about statistical analysis for real-time data, saying the Office of Water is working with statisticians to look into the question of analyzing large data sets as opposed to discrete sampling results.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.