Smart phones helping Lake Erie be smart about water quality

Jul 23, 2020

A new group along Lake Erie wants to combine big data and smart phones to get the wider community interested in protecting the lake and its tributaries.

It is called the Smart Citizen Science Initiative and links a series of community foundations. Among those are the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which works in the Detroit area as well as Western New York. 

Cleveland Water Alliance Program Manager Max Herzog said letting the lake deteriorate is bad for the community and the economy.

"Felt in places like recreation and tourism. Obviously, most folks think in terms of the economic impacts, just the fact that most folks won't want to go out on the water or visit areas were the water is contaminated in this way," Herzog said. "But it also has really large impact on property value, impacting shoreline properties, private and public."

The Water Alliance has developed a spectrophotometer, which can be hooked up to a smart phone to measure algae in the lake and connecting waterways.
Credit Smart Citizen Science Initiative / Cleveland Water Alliance

The Water Alliance has developed a very small gadget that can be hooked up to a smart phone to measure algae in the lake and connecting waterways. Herzog said ordinary citizens will be recruited to use this spectrophotometer to take samples and feed them into a large computer data system still in the works. This will help develop a better picture of the lake and help fight the blue-green algae, which is a threat to a healthy lake.

"That monitors for nitrate and phosphate. It executes a basic chemical reaction and then using a cell phone application, smart phone application, analyzes the wave length of light off of that reaction, to measure nitrates and phosphates, the kind of core nutrients that drive the harmful algae," he said.

In 2014, a blast of algae shut down water intakes in Toledo, OH for days. River pollution is also behind the drinking water problems in Flint, MI. Herzog said it drives increased distrust of public water.

"An event like 2014, really kind of drives home for folks a lot of suspicions about the quality of our drinking water, whether founded or unfounded," he said. "And we know that those seed health risks, as well as the distrust component."