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official press release,
printed in the Duluth Budgeteer on March 24, 2002

June Kallestad (NRRI)

Duluth to monitor water quality of urban streams

Sensors will transmit water quality information to public Duluth has some 42 streams, 12 of which are trout streams, that drain into the northland's most predominant and valuable natural resource-Lake Superior. And with the steep slope of the landscape into the lake, Duluth streams make an efficient urban watershed, moving the water quickly into this valuable body of fresh water. Maybe too efficient, actually. As the water winds its way through the city, it picks up sediments and pollutants from roads and parking lots, and an overload of organic waste and nutrients from yards. The hot asphalt heats up the water and rushes it into the bay. How does this urban life affect the streams, the aquatic life, the lake?
The City of Duluth is taking a proactive stance to monitor the water quality in four streams, and then get the information to local resource managers and the public in ways that can be easily accessed and easily understood. The Duluth Streams project is funded with $352,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency's national EMPACT program. Set up by presidential directive in 1996, EMPACT's mission is buried in its acronymic name: Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking. And that's exactly what Duluth Streams is all about.

Duluth Streams is a spin-off from the successful Water On the Web (waterontheweb.org) high school and college-level science curricula that hooks up students with real-time water quality information. Remote underwater sampling stations collect the data on several lakes in Minnesota and is accessed on the WOW website. The same sampling technology is used for Lake Access (lakeaccess.org), a website for community monitoring of water quality on Lake Minnetonka and Medicine Lake, especially lawn fertilizer concerns.

"Now more than ever, we're seeing efforts to protect our natural environment," Mayor Gary Doty said. "The first step toward protection lies in understanding and that's why we're proud to support this work." Like other cities across the country, Duluth will be required to have a discharge elimination system storm water permit in place by March 2003. One requirement of the permit is for public education and the development of a pollution prevention plan. "The Duluth Streams monitoring and educational materials are an important part of the City's plan for complying with the permit requirements in a proactive way," said Marnie Lonsdale, project coordinator for the Duluth Storm water Utility. The city is coordinating efforts with researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and Minnesota Sea Grant. These groups will collaborate with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Public information will be provided at interactive kiosks at the Great Lakes Aquarium and the Lake Superior Zoo, as well as online at DuluthStreams.org. Sensors will monitor the streams for water flow, temperature, salt content and turbidity (how brown the water is with sediment) and transmit the information to the website. Researchers will also collect water regularly for a variety of nutrient analyses. DuluthStreams.org will also be a gathering site for maps, reports, community action activities and other fresh water information that's now scattered and difficult to access. Local scientists will interpret the data so it can be understood by resource managers, developers, teachers, students and the community. The idea is that a well-informed public will make better decisions about land use. "The biggest pollution problem in streams everywhere is suspended sediments from erosion," said NRRI's Rich Axler, an expert in fresh water research. "The particles deplete the food supply for fish by smothering the bottom of the stream where aquatic insects live and by decreasing the oxygen that fish and insect eggs need to survive." The problem gets worse because sediments can also carry pollutants like mercury and other heavy metals, according to Axler. The pollutants may poison aquatic life and pose health risks to people eating them. Sediments also carry phosphorus from lawns and streets which contributes to excess algae growth in water systems. More construction near the streams also means more impervious surfaces-roads, parking lots, roofs-that don't allow water to soak through to the soil. During a rainstorm, these surfaces rush the water to sewers, ditches and streams in unnaturally heavy flows, causing the sewers to back up and the streams to speed up, eroding their banks more quickly. Also, the water heats up on the hot tarmac before heading down stream. Trout are especially temperature sensitive and need clean, cool water to thrive. DuluthStreams.org will have a rich variety of interactive computer animations and historic information to help citizens explore and interpret the data. "Providing the public with data from their local streams and user-friendly tools to interpret the information should help engage people in understanding and caring for their water resources," said NRRI researcher George Host. "We have used this approach successfully in Twin Cities lakes (lakeaccess.org). Now we have the opportunity to adapt it to a northern community with significant development and storm water management issues." The researchers are hoping that the monitoring and public access to the information will result in community action. "We'd love to see people volunteer to monitor and help with clean up efforts at streams they live near," said Sea Grant educator Cindy Hagley. "Hopefully, it will help community members understand water quality issues and they will take greater interest in the health of their local streams."