Early warning system for water quality passes first test

A milestone first run of a proposed national ‘weather service’ for Australian regional water quality has received a confident thumbs up from the national science agency, CSIRO.

The system is being hailed as the first stage in forecasting potentially dangerous downturns in water quality for rivers and coastal marine waters.

CSIRO’s AquaWatch, a proposed hi-tech ‘early warning’ system, aims to safeguard freshwater and coastal water resources in Australia.

The pilot scheme was put through its paces at South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, where it combined satellite images with sensor data from ocean buoys floating off the coast, and even enlisted help from an AI system.

The result? Real time water quality data from the ocean on scientists’ screens every 15 minutes.

The test was a pilot, but CSIRO says similar water quality sensors will eventually be located at 7 test sites around Australia, 3 on inland water bodies and 4 at coastal sites, including Spencer Gulf.

Dr Nagur Cherukuru, senior scientist for CSIRO’s Coastal and Oceanic Systems program and National Pilot Lead on AquaWatch, confirmed the pilot test of the system had produced “live” water quality data every 15 minutes.

Nagur Cherukuru

“We have implemented a technology where we provide real-time water quality measurements,” he says.

“The buoys are equipped with underwater sensors that measure dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, temperature [and others] … and the satellite data gives a spatial description; for example, if there is a large eddy forming, then you would know the feature is moving.

“And for an algal bloom … AquaWatch will be able to tell how phyto-plankton is growing and give it a spatial description.”

The service will help industries such as aquaculture and coastal fish farming, CSIRO says.

Rising global demand for seafood has meant aquaculture is now Australia’s fastest growing livestock industry, with 9% growth per year and tipped to reach $2 billion by 2027.

Key commercial species include Southern Bluefin Tuna, Yellowtail Kingfish, barramundi, oysters, mussels and abalone.

In 2021-22, the South Australian aquaculture industry contributed more than half of the State’s seafood output, worth $238 million.

Background: Water quality project kicks off

CSIRO’s Aquawatch lead Dr Alex Held says the new system will be able to monitor around fish farms to warn of phenomena like algal or phytoplankton blooms.

Alex Held

“Algal blooms can be natural, and tend to float by aquaculture farms,” says Held. “They can get called red tides, because there is a phytoplankton species with a pigment that makes them look red.

“They can get into the gills of the fish and do  a lot of harm and certain toxins can damage the quality of the fish.”

Predicting such blooms would help the industry, he says.

“But also [help the] the community, because red tides are also potentially nasty for people swimming at the beach.”

Held says the next phase of AquaWatch is to be able to forecast 2 or 3 days into the future.

That way fish farms or other groups can make decisions about what to do: Move their fish farms out of the way? Harvest early?

Spencer Gulf is a milestone, he says: “Getting an operational buoy into important water bodies in the coast of Australia, the seafood basket in this case.”

“2 or 3 years after 2026, we will have the whole country covered.”

Our Cosmos Country podcast team of Marie Low and Jamie Seidel spoke to Dr Held about the water quality monitoring project. Listen below.

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