URI researchers to create sensor network to monitor health of watersheds

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$6 million NSF grant launches partnership with Vermont, Delaware

KINGSTON, R.I. – August 9, 2013 – Researchers from the University of Rhode Island are creating a network of high-tech sensors that they hope will better protect and preserve the Ocean State’s watersheds.

“Rhode Island is already facing drought, and we’re already facing increased storm activity. This project aims to accelerate society’s response to these weather events,” said Jennifer Specker, URI professor of oceanography and the leader of the initiative. “The idea is to be able to rapidly gather information about the watersheds so decision makers can respond more quickly.”

The project is funded with a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will be shared equally with collaborators in Vermont and Delaware. The sensors here, in two local watersheds, and those in the partner states will 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.

Researchers from the three states have established the North East Water Resources consortium as part of each state’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program. The effort stems from a five-state consortium created in 2009 that constructed an advanced optical fiber network in the region. The new project will use the fiber network to transmit the data.

The sensor network will be deployed on Aquidneck Island and in the Hunt River watershed in southern Rhode Island to collect data on dissolved oxygen, suspended sediments, nutrients and other factors. New sensors also will be developed to collect data that existing sensors do not detect, and new technologies for deploying sensors will also be developed, perhaps including the use of robotic drones to collect water samples without disturbing the water.

“We’ve already been studying a great deal about the marine environment, but we wanted to focus on the watersheds this time because the problems coming our way as a society – climate change, changing land use, more intense storms – don’t just affect our marine life but also affect entire watersheds,” said Specker.

In addition to collecting and transmitting data, the project also will include economics experiments to test how human behaviors may change as people react to and use this data.

In addition to Specker, the URI team includes hydrologists Art Gold and Kelly Addy, economist Emi Uchida, chemist Jason Dwyer and oceanographer Chris Roman, along with partners from Salve Regina University and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The partnership with colleagues in Delaware and Vermont will enable the researchers to make observations and predictions about watershed conditions as storms and other weather events move from one state to the next.

“Storms that move up the coast, for instance, will provide us with a gradient of information that the three states can learn from,” Specker said. “There are also different dynamics at play because the topography of each state is different.”

Hydrologists from URI, the University of Vermont and the University of Delaware have already begun to visit sites in each state to determine the kind of data they want to collect and how and where to deploy the sensors. Economists from the three universities also are meeting to create the experiments and models they will use to assess how decision-making happens across the region.

“We hope that this award helps to establish the research infrastructure that will enable us to work together on additional projects like this,” Specker concluded. “Weather events are likely to become more extreme in frequency and intensity, so it’s not too early to start gathering data to help our states respond effectively.”