September 9, 2016

Summit on Remote Sensing to Protect Our Water

Nearly two years ago, Toledo, Ohio suffered from toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie that ultimately caused the water system serving 400,000 people to shut down for two days. While not all algal blooms are toxic, even non-toxic algal blooms are a water quality problem in that they prevent light from penetrating surface waters to allow submerged vegetation to grow. When the algae die, they suck the oxygen out of the water, suffocating fish and other animals that need oxygen to breathe. Algal blooms are fueled by increases in phosphorus and nitrogen entering the water supply from a variety of sources, including farms, sewage systems, storm water, and air deposition. While we have ambient monitoring data on algal blooms in water bodies, gathering that data is time intensive, costly, and usually limited in duration and coverage.

Fortunately, ambient sampling methods are no longer the only tool available for gathering water quality data. Satellites are constantly circling the earth, gathering local water quality data using remote sensing that can help fill information gaps and focus ambient monitoring efforts on where it is needed most. Even better, agencies like EPA and NASA collect this data and make it available to the public for free! Remote sensing satellite systems can detect water quality factors such as temperature, algal growth, turbidity, and color and can also identify associated pollution sources and sinks. Understanding the key factors that contribute to algal blooms may help us decrease their frequency and the protect public health. Yet, as of now, the data is often not available to the public in a usable form.

Here at the Pisces Foundation, we take these threats and challenges seriously and are working to leverage water investments that ensure people and nature thrive together. See our Op Ed in the New York Times to read more. Later this month, the Meridian Institute, with funding from the Pisces Foundation, Walton Family Fund, McKnight Foundation, and Johnson Foundation, will bring together remote sensing experts and conservation organizations to discuss how groups, such as non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, technology companies, philanthropic organizations, and researchers, can advance and increase the use of remote sensing to protect freshwater resources in the U.S. This initial discussion could help create a pathway for non-profit organizations to make a greater use of remote sensing in water conservation and protection projects in the near future. The group will focus on remote sensing technologies that produce publicly available datasets that are accessible at low or no cost to users. Participants will discuss how remote sensing data is currently being used to protect water resources and how its use could be enhanced with new products, new software, and increased awareness of its potential in the nonprofit community. One goal of this meeting is to create and identify opportunities for government, technology companies, philanthropy, and universities to work together to accelerate advancement of these technologies for water resource protection.

The convening will take place at the Johnson Foundation’s retreat at Wingspread in Racine, WI. The Johnson Foundation has served for over 50 years as facilitators for meetings to identify innovative solutions regarding healthy environments and local communities. While this meeting will focus on the use of remote sensing to monitor freshwater resources within the United States, the recommendations this group develops could have global applications.