National water quality monitoring project kicks off

Sensors have been installed on the Southern Great Barrier Reef in the first step to create a national ‘weather service’ for Australian regional water quality.

The CSIRO’s AquaWatch Mission is rolling out the sensors in seven test sites around the nation. The real-time data collected will be combined with hyperspectral satellite camera data to determine temperature, salinity, oxygen, sediment, organic carbon (decayed plant matter) and algal plume levels.

The real-time ebb and flow of these conditions is expected to enable machine learning systems to help produce predictive models that can provide early warnings for regional water supplies, tourism and aquaculture industries.

“We want to create a water quality weather service,” CSIRO’s AquaWatch Mission Lead Dr Alex Held told Cosmos. “We are establishing several pilots around the country to test some of these new technologies and offer a comprehensive monitoring system that we can provide to the public very quickly”.

Space-based hyperspectral cameras can track optically active changes, such as sediment levels and chlorophyll intensity – and type – from algae and phytoplankton.

However, ground-based sensors are still needed for invisible processes, including salinity and oxygen levels.

Csiro scientist gemma kerrisk reviews aquawatch data
CSIRO scientist Gemma Kerrisk reviews AquaWatch data (Image: CSIRO)

The Great Barrier Reef is the first to get an experimental facility. Moreton Bay is next in the rollout plan that includes remote but critical water sources such as the Hume Dam.

“We are investing a lot of research into using very high performance, cloud computing infrastructure that allows us to process these things very, very quickly,” Held adds. “Then we can provide this information to the public”.

Water quality is one of CSIRO’s eight core missions.

AquaWatch will need a nationwide network of sensor stations in much the same way the Weather Bureau does.

“This is not just about the CSIRO,” says Held. “We need partners to help establish these systems. Regional communities, universities, commercial enterprises – this is a super ambitious project. We need to cover the whole country eventually”.

The growing bushfire threat is just one contributor to a sense of urgency around the project.

Bushfires kill trees and plants and the ash is carried into waterways along with extra sediments no longer restrained by root systems.

“The ambition we have in AquaWatch is to build simulation models that will allow us to forecast water quality a few days into the future,” Held adds. “This is so water managers can act before a problem arises.

Authorities can then turn off a water intake to a rural town or city, move an aquaculture farm, or harvest its contents before a sediment plume comes their way.”

The CSIRO says the Great Barrier Reef alone contributes $5.2 billion annually to national revenue and permanently employs 64,000 people. The experimental sensor system will monitor the flow of sediments and dissolved organic carbon from the Fitzroy River into Keppel Bay and beyond.

This test data will initially be made available to CSIRO research partners and traditional custodians as part of a verification program. But the goal is to make it available to all Australians via a dedicated app or integration into the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather reporting network.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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