Protecting Swimmers with Real-Time Monitoring: Q&A with Dr. James Bonner

The 1972 Clean Water Act set a national policy goal of fishable and swimmable waters by July 1, 1983. Yet, in 2012, 40% of the nation’s coastal beaches experienced at least one closure due to pollution and more than 20,000 beach-days were lost. Indications are 2013 fared no better.

Dr. James Bonner and John Cronin discuss REON. In the background, “Trust,” Beacon Institute’s vessel, tows the B1 REON station into place on the Hudson River, off Denning’s point in Beacon, NY.

Dr. James Bonner and John Cronin discuss REON. In the background, “Trust,” Beacon Institute’s vessel, tows the B1 REON station into place on the Hudson River, off Denning’s point in Beacon, NY.

As troubling, current monitoring methods cause a delay between the time contamination occurs, when it can be verified, and when a beach closure is implemented, resulting in swimmer exposure to bacteria, viruses and more.

The perfection of real-time monitoring techniques offers the hope of real-time protection. We discuss with Dr. James Bonner of Clarkson University who designed and operates Beacon Institute’s River and Estuary Observatory Network (REON).

40% of the nation’s coastal beaches experienced at least one closure due to pollution in 2012. More than 20,000 beach days were lost – See more at: http://earthdesk.blogs.pace.edu/?s=swimming#sthash.wHGYR6Ca.dpuf

40% of the nation’s coastal beaches experienced at least one closure due to pollution in 2012. More than 20,000 beach days were lost – See more at: http://earthdesk.blogs.pace.edu/?s=swimming#sthash.wHGYR6Ca.dpuf

WatermarkHow are swimming beaches monitored today?

Jim Bonner: Right now, in order to determine whether there is beach contamination caused by fecal coliform (contamination related to waste from humans or other mammals), someone would have to physically go to the beach, dip a container in the water, traipse back to the lab, culture the water sample and wait two days to find out that swimmers should not have been in the water over that two-day period (if the result came back positive). Usually beach contamination of this kind is a very transient event, so even if a particular beach were to regularly sample the water say, once a week on Fridays, if there had been fecal matter in the water on the Monday before, there would be no evidence of it found in the sample taken on Friday, yet people would have been swimming in contaminated water on Monday and Tuesday; Typically it takes two days for fecal coliform to come and go. The beach should have been closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Watermark: How would real-time monitoring make a difference?

Bonner: If a beach is continuously contaminated, the beach could be shut downbefore people swim, and experts would have to locate the source and mitigate the problem before re-opening the beach. A culprit in this case, might be an animal feed lot located nearby or a sewage treatment plant that had overflowed due to a recent episodic weather event, for example.

The advantage of having real-time monitoring for organisms such as these would be huge. Specifically, real-time in situ monitoring (in situ = “in place”). Real-time monitoring would provide an instant result by placing a sensor in the water to detect the contaminant. Real-time in situ monitoring would mean the monitoring sensors would be in place all the time, providing data about the water 24/7. No more trips to the lab. No more swimming in contaminated water. No more after-the-fact beach closing.

Watermark: Are we there yet?

Bonner: Though we are not yet able to detect these specific organisms, other biological, physical and chemical data can be collected in real-time, as we do with REON (River and Estuary Observatory Network). This technology could also have many other applications. Who knows, maybe someday soon you’ll be able to go to a drug store, go into a room to urinate in a cup with a sensor monitor attached and get an instant result that you have a urinary tract infection!