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USGS Launches Mobile Water Quality Sensor On Mississippi Riverboat

Kate Payne / IPR
The USGS is launching its first ever mobile water quality sensor attached to a Mississippi River steamboat.

The U.S. Geological Survey is expanding its network of water quality sensors to include a first-of-its-kind mobile sensor – that will cruise the Mississippi River attached to a steamboat.

The water quality sensor is mounted to the stern of the American Queen, a boat that will travel the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana.

The equipment will measure water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and nitrate levels in real time, logging GPS information as it goes. Measurements will be taken every five minutes and uploaded online every 15 minutes.

U.S.G.S Director James Reilly says the real-time data will expand on the thousands of fixed sensors in waterways across the watershed.

“What you’re seeing today is the first time where we can do what we can call a longitudinal connection between all our fixed sites, our 3,750 sites,” Reilly said.

“What we’re doing here is increasing the speed of delivery of the information that allows people to describe what’s going on in the watershed, get a healthy source of drinking water as well as water that’s used for industrial purposes, and also to get the controls on the nutrient loads,” he added.

Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch joined mayors from up and down the river to support the initiative. He says nutrient loading, mainly from farm runoff, is a major threat to drinking water.

“We know we are contributing to the nutrient load the cities south of us have to deal with and it creates costs for their manufacturing, tourism and drinking water economies. We as mayors along the nation’s most important waterway see nutrient loading as the greatest threat to our water security,” Klipsch said. “In order to manage this threat we must be able to measure it. Without measurement we don’t make any progress.”

On average, hundreds of millions of pounds of nitrate, largely from farm fertilizer, flow off Iowa’s farm fields each year, and along with some municipal and urban sources, contaminate private drinking water wells and public water sources across the state. As the nutrients flow downstream, they contribute to algae blooms that choke waterways and contribute to the massive so-called “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Launching the sensor is a collaboration between the USGS, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, and the American Queen Steamboat Company.

Data from the sensor will be uploaded online for use by researchers, elected officials and the public.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter