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Integrated synoptic surveys of the hydrodynamics and water-quality distributions in two Lake Michigan rivermouth mixing zones using an autonomous underwater vehicle and a manned boat

April 21, 2014

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the National Monitoring Network for U.S. Coastal Waters and Tributaries, launched a pilot project in 2010 to determine the value of integrated synoptic surveys of rivermouths using autonomous underwater vehicle technology in response to a call for rivermouth research, which includes study domains that envelop both the fluvial and lacustrine boundaries of the rivermouth mixing zone. The pilot project was implemented at two Lake Michigan rivermouths with largely different scales, hydrodynamics, and settings, but employing primarily the same survey techniques and methods. The Milwaukee River Estuary Area of Concern (AOC) survey included measurements in the lower 2 to 3 miles of the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers and inner and outer Milwaukee Harbor. This estuary is situated in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is the most populated basin that flows directly into Lake Michigan. In contrast, the Manitowoc rivermouth has a relatively small harbor separating the rivermouth from Lake Michigan, and the Manitowoc River Watershed is primarily agricultural. Both the Milwaukee and Manitowoc rivermouths are unregulated and allow free exchange of water with Lake Michigan.

This pilot study of the Milwaukee River Estuary and Manitowoc rivermouth using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) paired with a manned survey boat resulted in high spatial and temporal resolution datasets of basic water-quality parameter distributions and hydrodynamics. The AUV performed well in these environments and was found primarily well-suited for harbor and nearshore surveys of three-dimensional water-quality distributions. Both case studies revealed that the use of a manned boat equipped with an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) and multiparameter sonde (and an optional flow-through water-quality sampling system) was the best option for riverine surveys. To ensure that the most accurate and highest resolution velocity data were collected concurrently with the AUV surveys, the pilot study used a manned boat equipped with an ADCP. Combining the AUV and manned boat datasets resulted in datasets that are essentially continuous from the fluvial through the lacustrine zones of a rivermouth. Whereas the pilot studies were completed during low flows on the tributaries, completion of surveys at higher flows using the same techniques is possible, but the use of the AUV would be limited to areas with relatively low velocities (less than 2 feet per second) such as the harbors and nearshore zones of Lake Michigan.

Overall, this pilot study aimed at evaluation of AUV technology for integrated synoptic surveys of rivermouth mixing zones was successful, and the techniques and methods employed in this pilot study should be transferrable to other sites with similar success. The use of the AUV provided significant time savings compared to traditional sampling techniques. For example, the survey of outer Milwaukee Harbor using the AUV required less than 7 hours for approximately 600 profiles compared to the 150 hours it would have taken using traditional methods in a manned boat (a 95 percent reduction in man-hours). The integrated datasets resulting from the AUV and manned survey boat are of high value and present a picture of the mixing and hydrodynamics of these highly dynamic, highly variable rivermouth mixing zones from the relatively well-mixed fluvial environment through the rivermouth to the stratified lacustrine receiving body of Lake Michigan. Such datasets not only allow researchers to understand more about the physical processes occurring in these rivermouths, but they provide high spatial resolution data required for interpretation of relations between disparate point samples and calibration and validation of numerical models.

Publication Year 2014
Title Integrated synoptic surveys of the hydrodynamics and water-quality distributions in two Lake Michigan rivermouth mixing zones using an autonomous underwater vehicle and a manned boat
DOI 10.3133/sir20145043
Authors P. Ryan Jackson, Paul C. Reneau
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2014-5043
Index ID sir20145043
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Illinois Water Science Center