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New Grant Helps Assess Benefits of Satellites for Determining Water Quality

June 24, 2020
With his team, Professor Joshua Viers surveys water quality and quantity in the California Delta.

Summertime means fun in the water, but as temperatures increase, algal blooms can grow in freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Some algae are natural and life-giving, while others are the result of life out of balance and can have harmful effects. Consisting of bacteria and tiny plankton, they arise quickly and alter the ecosystem by consuming available oxygen, killing fish.

They also pose a health risk as some algal blooms emit toxins — including neurotoxins deadly to pets and harmful to people. Detecting algal blooms from space using satellites is one way to prevent exposure. Analyzing how people react to harmful blooms is another.

In an innovative and cross-disciplinary remote-sensing approach, engineering Professor Joshua Viers and colleagues aim to develop a model to describe how lake visitors in California adjust their recreation choices when outbreaks of harmful algal blooms are announced.

Viers, who also serves as associate dean for Research in the School of Engineering and campus director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), is part of a one of three research teams that each received $100,000. NASA and Resources for the Future — a firm that conducts economic analyses for natural-resources management — partnered to fund the work and formed the Valuables program to quantify the benefits of using satellite data in decisions that improve socioeconomic benefits for people and the environment, including water quality.

A deeper understanding of how early warning systems allow people to steer away from sites with potentially harmful blooms and choose other bodies of water to visit instead will help researchers and resource managers understand the health, recreation and economic effects of those choices.

“The important breakthrough in this research will be to put a dollar value on the economic benefit of information technology applied to environmental problems that directly affect things we value, such as recreation and water quality,” Viers said.

Professor Stephen Newbold from the University of Wyoming explains how the team is designing impact assessments.

Economist Stephen Newbold of the University of Wyoming is leading the team working on water quality management with Viers and researchers from the University of Wyoming, Clark University and the University of Delaware.

The research is particularly timely as the peak of summer approaches. With a large number of swimmers and boaters expected at many of the state’s water bodies, the State Water Board reminds the public to be mindful of the harmful blooms in lakes, streams and reservoirs, and to keep dogs and children away from the blooms if they see one.

Harmful blooms consist of high concentrations of blue-green algae — cyanobacteria — stimulated by nutrient pollution, warm weather and calm waters. Fellow UC Merced water researcher Professor Erin Hestir said the blooms produce cyanotoxins that can irritate eyes, skin and mouths, induce vomiting and diarrhea, and even cause acute liver failure. They also produce compounds with an earthy/musty taste and odor that is difficult to remove in water-treatment plants.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife encourages anglers and swimmers to report any algal bloom sightings. Learn more about harmful algal blooms from the California Water Quality Monitoring Council.

“Our ability to model and forecast harmful algal bloom events has improved significantly in recent years, but our scientific understanding of factors that promote them has not yet advanced to a point where bloom mitigation or prevention is easily achieved,” Hestir said. “That means early detection through real-time water quality monitoring is the best approach to protecting human health and water treatability.”