Creating a Smart Lake Erie

By Bryan Stubbs

Bryan Stubbs is the executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance and a recognized leader in building and implementing stronger, influential and more sustainable economies and communities.

In recent years, Lake Erie had one of the greatest threats to its urban water supply: harmful algal blooms.

This deep green gunk is a result of phosphorus-rich fertilizer runoff from farm fields. The runoff made Toledo, Ohio’s freshwater undrinkable for several days because the algal blooms added cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to Toledo’s water system, which contains a toxin that can cause liver and kidney damage.This affected about 400,000 residents of Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan.

Unfortunately, these algal blooms continue to appear and grow, although not yet to the same scale as in 2014. Current research suggests that blooms of this scale will become an annual norm, threatening a water utilities with a loss of $1.3 billion over the next 30 years, not to mention additional costs to recreation, tourism, property values and the City’s brand. This looming crisis has prompted the governments of Ohio, Michigan and Ontario to pledge a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution of Lake Erie by 2025.

This ongoing challenge makes the importance of monitoring Lake Erie to prevent runoff and other threats to its health, even more critical than before.

Creating innovative solutions to these and other problems in Lake Erie is the focus of the Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA), a non-profit organization that connects Northeast Ohio corporations, universities and government agencies to drive economic development through water innovation and promote the value of water to its region.

 

Connect, Educate and Innovate

CWA’s aim is to create a Blue Economy where innovating and monetizing solutions to water challenges replaces continued pollution of our resources as a key driver of prosperity.

Its partners include a range of organizations and companies, including AT&T, Digital C, Splashlink, YSI/Xylem, LimnoTech, Oatey, Eaton, and many more.

Together, they are working on ways to bring helpful and job-creating innovations to the lake.

Innovation has long been a part of life and work on Lake Erie. Its unique water resources paired with technological advancement continue to drive one of the most dynamic regional economies on the globe. Yet, despite its essential role in commerce and industry, Lake Erie, and the utility actors that maintain it, has been historically undervalued as an economic asset and catalyst of innovation.

CWA wants to change this thinking and create the first smart and connected Great Lake.

 

An Innovative Water Tech Competition to Invite New Ideas

CWA is working with a multi-month regional hacking competition aimed at rewarding innovative thinkers for creating commercial-worthy solutions to Lake Erie’s challenges.

The competition, called Erie Hack, kicked off in 2017 and will take place again in 2019. It’s a collaboration of cities and organizations around the Lake Erie basin, including Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, N.Y., and Windsor, Ontario.

Money and prizes up to $100,000 go to teams with the most creative, effective and product-worthy ideas.

In the first Erie Hack, a team named Micro Buoy, representing Wayne State University in Detroit, won the top prize for its presentation of nanosensors to detect phosphorus, nitrogen, and lead. The sensors are powered by a micro-battery which the judges were especially impressed with. During the last year, the team has deployed its solutions as a pilot and has since spun out of Wayne State and into an early-stage commercial venture.

Another prize-winning team from Buffalo introduced acoustic telemetry-based Wifi capable of transmitting high volumes of data underwater. Research continues on this project, including interest from the US Navy.

CWA and key partner DigitalC saw that the Erie Hack teams were onto something. Projects funded by nearby regional governments, like the Sandusky Bay Initiative, are placing Lake Erie at the cutting edge of nutrient pollution mitigation, but there is a key piece missing.

Nutrient data are not collected with the frequency or granularity required to understand the impact of individual projects or run data analytics to understand trends. Initiatives like Great Lakes Commission’s ErieSTAT and US EPA’s Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge show that important steps are being taken to address this problem, but an end-to-end monitoring solution has yet to be developed.

Having identified this need, CWA and DigitalC partnered with US Ignite to launch the Internet of H2O Challenge, a competition aimed at bringing next-generation networking, detection, and analytics technology to bear on nutrient monitoring in Lake Erie. The partnership worked closely with the best Erie Hack teams and a handful of strategically positioned companies and research groups to populate this smaller challenge with pilot projects to monetize and grow.

 

Technology on Lake Erie Now

Other technology and products already are being applied and used on Lake Erie.

Nearly two dozen smart buoys are bobbing around lake Erie collecting all kinds of data from water temperature to pH to wind speed and wave height.

The Cleveland Water Department has two buoys that help it monitor any changes in lake water quality before it is drawn into Cleveland’s four water treatment plants. A company named Limnotech, an environmental engineering and innovation firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., owns and maintains three buoys off the coast of Cleveland. These buoys can receive texts and deliver back information on wind speed water and air temperature, turbidity, wave height, air speed and other parameters. A story about these buoys on cleveland.com resulted in so many texts to them that it crashed the phone number!

Much of this work continues in 2019 with CWA’s work, in partnership with the Great Lakes Observing System, on a Harmful Algal Bloom Warning System and the development of deep learning analytics to help our utility partners meet today’s challenges before danger strikes.

Innovations like these are leading the way to a smarter, more responsive, more familiar lake. The vision is to create the first “Smart Lake” that can be the model for innovation and help protect one of the world’s most precious and vital fresh water supplies.

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