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Cry Me a River: Despite the Help of Robots, America's Waterways Are Being Threatened into Endangerment

May 24, 2012

America's rivers have been the subject of so many songs, poems, books, movies and TV shows that I could waste the entire rest of your day listing them. But I'll name just two to get you in the mood. "Swanee River," by Stephen Foster, is a great song. A River Runs Through It, starring a really young Brad Pitt, is a beautiful elegy to nature and the healing powers of water.

I was thinking about rivers when I came across two stories. The first story, about the tale of a crack team of scientists in California that is trying to make a difference in how the cleanliness of rivers is determined and how they can be cleaned up, made me optimistic. The other story, a look at the dangers facing some spots that many of us love so much, made me pessimistic.

Let's start on the positive side. A pretty cool project, called the Floating Sensor Network, is being put together by some smart folks at the University of California, Berkeley. They are building a water monitoring system, made up of mobile robots, that can be deployed in estuarine environments and rivers and integrated into existing water-monitoring infrastructure.

The robots can think and report back water conditions and quality, and the University of California, Berkeley team is already preparing to deploy them into the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta in Northern California. Fitted with active sensors, the robots will be able to move freely and send back their position at any moment and information about which areas of the delta are clean and which are filthy.

They can even tweet, remarkably, thanks to smartphones fitted inside their hardware.


I spoke with Andrew Tinka, the lead graduate student researcher, about the project. Says Tinka: "The delta is a very critical water resource [in California]. It conveys freshwater from the north to pumping stations in the south that eventually [go] into ducts to Los Angeles. There was a need for getting better, high-resolution data to see how the components move around in the delta."

He continues: "[The state was] looking to find more information and get easier access to data. As opposed to the classic ways of finding out data, which is just nailing sensors down in fixed points, we thought there was an opportunity to improve data gathering."

So over the course of 18 months, professor Alexandre M. Bayen and the university's team set out to create the robotic devices. The project's members will give the robots a map of where they're going place them into the delta, where the waters will carry them to specific areas to collect data about water cleanliness using GPS technology.

The project is actually in its third "generation" of robots, after the team built 10 each during two experimental phases. On May 9, the team ran its first full-scale test, deploying 100 active and passive robots (passive ones just have cell phones in them without GPS capability).

While data of what the robots found is not yet available, Tinka says the tests went smoothly. Every five seconds the devices communicate their positions, so team members are able to corral them if they go astray.

They also, adorably, tweet "Splash!" every time they go into and out of the water.

The project's expense is high. Tinka says the active robotic units cost $2500 to build, while the passive ones cost $300.

Still, there's a market for these devices if they're proven to work. According to Tinka, besides government agencies, which would use them to find out the quality of their rivers' cleanliness, oil companies could bring them aboard tankers and deploy them if a spill were to occur, finding out things like which direction the spill is going and how bad it is.

"I hope it becomes part of the standard toolbox of people who are doing research work," Tinka says. "But I think we're still a generation [of robots) away from seeing it become available commercially."


These Rivers Are an Endangered Species

Next, I want to turn to an annual report by the organization American Rivers. The group, which has been in existence since 1973, puts together an annual list of the 10 most endangered rivers in America.

When it talks about endangered rivers, it doesn't just mean that they are dirty or that they are in chronic need of rescue from urban development or toxic ecological conditions. No, American Rivers is looking for 10 waterways that can spur attention and widespread support of them before further damage is done.

This year's America's Most Endangered Rivers list has just been released, and I spoke to Jessie Thomas-Blate, the coordinator of the project, about some of this year's findings. "We generally get somewhere between 25 to 30 nominations from different environmental and rivers-related groups each year," says Thomas-Blate. "We try to feature different rivers each year. Generally speaking, in most cases the reason we list [a river] is because a decision is going to be made on it in the 12 months [that follow], involving the river's future."



This year several rivers are on the list thanks to attacks on the Clean Water Act. There is legislation in Congress that threatens to alter or roll back the historic 40-year-old bill.

The number one most endangered river, the Potomac River, in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, is at risk due to urban development that is funneling polluted rainwater into the waterway, Thomas-Blate says. Trouble also comes from chemical fertilizers and manure from farmers, as well as wastewater overflowing from sewers. Add to that pharmaceuticals being flushed down toilets and the Potomac has issues -- lots of them.

On the legislative front, S. 2245/H.R. 4965 is a measure in Congress that would partially de-fund the Clean Water Act or at least change the way the government enforces the act.

"The people who support that bill believe that headwater streams should not be under the purview of the federal government," Thomas-Blate says. "This would be an attempt to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from rolling out its new guidelines on protecting U.S. waters."

Another noticeably evident trend from the list is fracking. Two of the 10 rivers, the Hoback River in Wyoming and the Grand River in Ohio, are listed because of nearby natural gas exploration.



"With the Grand River, there's been a lot of talk regarding crafting new regulations allowing for more natural gas development," says Thomas-Blate. "There's a lot of wastewater disposal wells in Ohio, and in a lot of cases we're seeing natural gas companies who aren't able to dispose of their wastewater from fracking in Pennsylvania truck the wastewater to Ohio and dump it into the wastewater disposal wells [there]."

For the Hoback River, Thomas-Blate explains that there's the possibility of Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) drilling 136 natural gas wells, using hydraulic fracturing, in the headwaters of the Hoback near Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Downstream of the proposed drilling site on the Hoback is a federally protected Wild and Scenic River, where its water quality and fisheries must be maintained. PXP's industrial scale gas field proposal is the only one in the nation located at the headwaters of a Wild and Scenic River.

American Rivers is urging people to write to the head of PXP and asking them to sell their leases for the property to a "conservation buyer."

In all, Thomas-Blate says there is still hope for the 10 endangered rivers on the list. She notes that past rivers on the list have been saved or cleaned up, so "there is still time to get involved and make a difference."