MiWaterNet monitors quality of northern Michigan streams


A sensor cable runs from the solar-powered controller of a monitoring station into the Carp River near Negaunee, Michigan. Image: Drew Heckman

By Nicoline Bradford

A water monitoring system powered by citizen scientists provides real time data for researchers across northern Michigan.

The system, called MiWaterNet, is important because it constantly measures the quality of small streams.

“Small streams are often considered the sentinels of the watershed,” said Ashley Moerke, the director of the Center for Freshwater Research and Education at Lake Superior State University and creator of the MiWaterNet program. They are very responsive to changes in the environment.

The real time data helps researchers answer important questions about a watershed’s condition.

“For example, if we’re studying how climate change is affecting the stream ecosystem we would need data that is taken at a high frequency,” Moerke said. Without constant monitoring, scientists couldn’t get the full picture.

Most stream monitoring is done a few times each year and does not capture the changes occurring over long periods. MiWaterNet measures them constantly.

The researchers were inspired by the US Geological Survey’s stream gauging network, said Drew Heckman, a research technician for the Center for Freshwater Research and Education and for the MiWaterNet program. This network provides valuable, real time data on a stream’s water quality, level and temperature.

However, these sensors are extremely expensive to maintain and tend to focus on large rivers, Heckman said. Many of them have become inactive and not been replaced.

Keeping the cost low is MiWaterNet’s focus, Heckman said. “Technology has come so far. What was cutting edge 10 years ago is now available to consumers for a much lower price.”

The researchers were also able to cut the cost significantly by doing some of the coding and wiring themselves.

Even high schoolers got involved.

One of the most rewarding parts of running the program has been the opportunity to integrate citizen science, Heckman said. Through a k-12 educational program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the researchers were also able to work with schools across northern Michigan, including Les Cheneaux Community Schools, Brimley Area Schools and Pickford Public Schools.

Heckman and his team brought science to the classroom. He worked with the students to assemble the monitoring stations and then deploy them in streams near the schools, providing the students with real time data. This gave them a local connection and got them excited about citizen science, he said.

High school students install a monitoring station on the Pine River. Image: Drew Heckman

The program has grown beyond the initial goals of data collection, Heckman said.

The data has already contributed to understanding stream pollution, which students have presented to city councils, Heckman said.

His favorite parts are the questions that come after the students deploy the sensors, Heckman said. They start thinking about the bigger picture and making connections.

Since 2018, 26 sensors have been deployed with funding and collaboration from various groups, including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Anglers of the Au Sable, according to the Center for Freshwater Research, which runs the program.

What’s so unique about this program is the variety of stakeholders it has engaged, Moerke said. Federal, state and local communities are involved at different levels.

“These broad stakeholders demonstrate how good the program is at integrating science, technology and education,” she said.

Browse the real time data on the MiWaterNet website. 

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