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"Sensing" Duluth's Streams

Jesse Schomberg, a technician for the Duluth Sreams project, checks a stream monitoring device

Jesse Schomberg, a technician with the Duluth Streams Project, checks a stream monitoring device in Kingsbury Creek at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth.

Duluth has 42 streams that drain into the northland’s most predominant and valuable natural resource - Lake Superior. Combined with the steep slope of the landscape, Duluth streams make an efficient urban watershed, moving water quickly into the lake.

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 encounter affect the streams, the aquatic life, the lake?

Minnesota Sea Grant is partnering in a project with the city of Duluth and the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) to monitor the water quality of four streams, and then deliver the information to local resource managers and the public in ways that can be easily accessed and 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.

"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. Requirements of the permit include public education and developing 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.

Project researchers are collaborating with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Public information will be provided on interactive kiosks at the Great Lakes Aquarium and the Lake Superior Zoo, as well as online at www.duluthstreams.org.

Electronic 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 Web site. Researchers will also collect water regularly for a variety of nutrient analyses.

DuluthStreams.org Logo

The duluthstreams.org Web site will serve as a repository for maps, reports, community action activities and other freshwater information that’s now scattered and difficult to access. Local scientists will interpret the data so it can be used 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. "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, contributing to excess algae growth in water systems.

Duluth Streams evolved from the successful Water On the Web high school and college-level science curriculum that hooks up students with real-time water quality information. Remote underwater sampling stations collect the data from several lakes in Minnesota. The data can be accessed on the WOW Web site. The same sampling technology is used for Lake Access, a Web site for community monitoring of water quality on Lake Minnetonka and Medicine Lake, especially with respect to lawn fertilizer concerns (see "A Tale of Two Cities' Lawn Care Practices" article).

More construction near the streams also means more impervious surfaces — roads, parking lots, and roofs — that prevent water from soaking 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. A dozen of Duluth's streams are home to trout.

Duluthstreams.org will have a variety of interactive computer animations and historic information to help citizens explore and interpret the data. Researchers hope that public access to the information will result in community action.

"We’d love to see people volunteer to monitor and help with cleanup efforts at streams they live near," said Cindy Hagley, water quality educator for Minnesota Sea Grant. "Hopefully, it will help community members understand water quality issues and they will take greater interest in the health of their local streams."

Information in this article is based on an NRRI press release.

By Sea Grant Staff
June 2002

Return to June 2002 Seiche

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