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A high-tech buoy that monitors water quality in real time was just installed in one of New England’s most popular lakes, where in the future it will help with determining when swimmers should and shouldn’t be in the water. 

A high-tech buoy that monitors water quality in real time was just installed in one of New England’s most popular lakes, where in the future it will help with determining when swimmers should and shouldn’t be in the water. 

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, with support from New Hampshire Departments of Environmental Services and Health and Human Services, deployed the buoy and weather station at Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire the beginning of June. The buoy will provide real time temperature, specific conductance, pH, dissolved oxygen and water levels, all clues that may help predict when bacteria levels are too high to permit swimming. 

Joseph Levitt secures the new buoy off Weirs Beach, NH
USGS scientist Joseph Levitt secured the new buoy, equipped to monitor water quality, at Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire in June 2016. Photo: Sanborn Ward, USGSPublic domain

“The USGS will be comparing the buoy measurements with culture-based E. coli samples to better understand what environmental conditions may lead to high bacteria counts at Weirs Beach,” said Richard Kiah, a supervisory hydrologic technician from the USGS New England Water Science Center and project lead. “Once we understand the correlation, we will be able to develop a model that will help state officials make real-time decisions on when water conditions are not suitable for swimming.”

It is unclear exactly what environmental conditions lead to high bacteria counts, but several factors are possible. These include high water temperatures, the presence of aquatic birds, high swimmer counts, failed septic systems, and storm water runoff. Once the concentration of E. coli in lakes reaches a certain level, state officials issue a swimming advisory recommending people stay out of the water.

“Bacteria counts resulting in no-swimming advisories can occur frequently, and often when and where people most want to go swimming,” according to Sonya Carlson, Beach Program Coordinator from the state’s Department of Environmental Services. “At Weirs Beach, the most popular and well-known beach on Lake Winnipesaukee, ‘no swimming advisories’ were posted after twenty-nine percent of all samples taken from 2003-2014.”

Currently, the State of New Hampshire evaluates swimming conditions at more than 160 inland beaches statewide using culture-based methods for determining counts of E. coli. Water samples are generally collected once a month and can take at least 24 hours to process. This time delay may result in beachgoers being exposed to high levels of bacteria, or swimming advisories being in effect for conditions that no longer exist.

The goal of this collaborative project is to produce web-based tools specific to New Hampshire beaches to help state and local officials determine when bacterial conditions may be unsafe for swimming using beach-specific data collected in real-time. A similar effort is currently underway at Pawtuckaway State Park beach on Pawtuckaway Lake, New Hampshire.

“This project is a great example of how high-quality data can be used to inform decision making at the state and local level. The real-time modeling approach has the potential to reduce human exposure to waterborne pathogens,” says Kathleen Bush, Department of Health and Human Services Environmental Public Health Tracking Program Manager.

The sentiment was echoed by David Neils, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ Chief Water Pollution Biologist. “I’m excited with how this collaborative project has come together, and with its very real potential to provide more timely information to the public on beach conditions, reducing the risk of waterborne illnesses.”

The status of conditions at New Hampshire beaches can be found at NHDES BeachMaps website.

Access current water-quality conditions across the country by visiting the USGS WaterQualityWatch website. Receive instant, customized updates about water conditions in your area via text message or email by signing up for USGS WaterAlert

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