University of Vermont

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New Sensors to Take Pulse of Watershed

UVM receives $2-million NSF grant

water sensor
What washed out of the watershed? UVM professor Andrew Schroth and summer intern Jessica Mailhot '16 deploy an advanced underwater sensor. Schroth is helping to lead a new NSF-funded project to take the pulse of watersheds from Delware to Vermont. (photo: Joshua Brown)

With a changing climate, storms in the Northeast are becoming more frequent and intense. Patterns of land use — for agriculture, development and forest — also are rapidly shifting across the region. How will these changes affect water quality? How will streams and rivers react? And what can people do to more effectively respond to fast changes in the Lake Champlain Basin, as surges of water and nutrients move through?

A new network of high-tech sensors is coming to Vermont that will help to answer these kinds of questions.

Vermont is the lead state in a new $6-million grant from the National Science Foundation that allows Vermont, Rhode Island, and Delaware to deploy advanced optical sensors that can gather data from underwater and transmit it remotely, giving a moment-to-moment portrait of what is happening across selected watersheds in all three states as storms, droughts and seasons pass.

“You can liken it to taking the pulse of the watershed,” says UVM assistant professor of geology Andrew Schroth, one of about twenty researchers involved in the new project. "We can continuously monitor the biogeochemical pulse of the watershed.”

Led by the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at the University of Vermont, the collaborative effort will gather high-frequency water quality and quantity data across all three states — as well as launch a network of lab and field-based experiments to investigate how to best present the “big data” from the new sensor network for use by policy makers and managers of the watersheds.

UVM’s portion of the grant will be $2-million.

“Understanding how best to represent high-frequency data for use by those who manage the Lake Champlain Basin and watersheds in Rhode Island and Delaware will be of broad interest beyond our states,” says Judith Van Houten, director of Vermont EPSCoR and UVM professor of biology, who is the lead investigator for the new project. “A goal is to allow policymakers and managers to accelerate their responses to storm events.”

Rapid measures

The new sensors, drawing on designs originally used in oceanography, “can measure the optical properties of constituents in the water every few seconds,” says Schroth. These include dissolved oxygen, dissolved organic matter, suspended sediments, nitrates, biological pigments and other information.

These sensors will allow the research team to monitor water quality and biogeochemical processes within these watersheds across timescales ranging from daily to seasonal and even from year to year, says Schroth, "all of which can provide unique and unparalleled  insight into the environmental drivers of water quality across the region and how they vary in both time and space."


And in an area of particular concern to Lake Champlain, “these sensors will help us better understand the underlying phosphorous problem," says Schroth. "We’ll be able to get a much better estimate of when and why more sediments and nutrients are coming out of the watershed during specific times of the year or specific storm events.”

But the project’s goals extend beyond Vermont’s concerns about phosphorous and algae in Lake Champlain. “We want to understand more generally how watersheds with different land covers typical of the Northeast, from Delaware to Vermont, respond to regional and large-scale environmental disturbances and drivers,” says Schroth. For Vermont, the researchers will be focusing on Chittenden County’s Potash Brook and its urbanizing watershed as well as agricultural and forested watersheds within the Missisquoi River basin. “We’ll monitor typical landscapes and watersheds across the network and then try to extrapolate our findings to the larger region,” he says.

The new collaborative, called the North East Water Resources Network (NEWRnet), arises from previous collaborations, forged over six years, by the North East Cyberinfrastructure Consortium (NECC). Through previous NSF awards, the NECC constructed an advanced optical fiber network and collaborates on other water research enabled by this network. The new project will use the NECC optical network and data centers, and build upon common interests of the three states in research for water resources, resource management and decision-making.

In other words, the science data is only part of the project. How it is used is equally important. NEWRnet will create economics experiments across all three states to test how people — residents, land-use managers, farmers, regulators, business owners and others — react to frequent inputs of information about their local and regional watersheds and environments. How do behaviors change? How do different displays of the data affect people’s perceptions and choices? From these experiments and other data, advanced computer models — “agent-based models” — will be developed to simulate how decision-making happens across the region.

“The overarching goal of the new network,” says UVM’s Van Houten, “is to improve the environmental governance and market mechanisms that sustain and improve water resources by linking information from the new sensors to behavioral results from decision makers.”