Tracking — and improving — water quality from source to sink
From high-tech filtration systems to social media stunts, local governments are finding new ways to identify and address water quality issues.
Communities around the world have devised creative ways to monitor local water quality, from roving crews who assess local water sources, to AI-enabled pipe monitoring systems.
Filtering is one good way to clean up water — but there are many ways to do it. Cities are using everything from bioreactors to floating filtration islands to clear up local waterways.
A key step toward maintaining water quality is to engage the public. This can be done through interactive parks, social media stunts, and crowdsourcing pollution reports.
Cooperation and collaboration across localities is critical, as water supply doesn’t stop at a city or county line.
Of all the vital services local governments provide, maintaining water quality may be one of the most unsung. It’s not the flashiest responsibility, but it’s necessary — for drinking, cooking, cleaning. For commercial use. For protecting local ecosystems.
As many localities around the world face pollution, flooding, and contaminants, cities and counties are exploring new ways to address water quality issues. These efforts have brought about a slew of innovative techniques that help local governments monitor what’s in their pipes and reservoirs, rally residents to understand their local water supply, and ultimately clean things up.
A lot of the principles we’ve seen applied across other areas of local government innovation come into play with water quality initiatives too: technology, citizen engagement, and sharing ideas between other communities. Let’s take a closer look at some of the cities and counties pioneering creative approaches to managing water quality.
Watching what’s in the water
Whether you have the cleanest supply in the world or are battling pollutants, you won’t know what you’ve got unless you assess what’s in your water. To do this, localities are taking a range of approaches — from human-powered to tech-driven.
On one end of the spectrum is a hands-on approach. $ Porirua City Council, NZ commissioned a roving crew$ to assess water quality around the region. The council dedicated $250,000 from the annual budget to set up this taskforce to monitor local streams and the harbour, focusing on places where wastewater and stormwater may mix, potentially contaminating local waterways with the wastewater.
On the other end of things, some localities are taking advantage of emerging technology to keep an eye on things.
In Blacktown, NSW, a pilot that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the local stormwater system has expanded beyond its first phase. The $ city is tapping into Australian startup VAPAR’s technology to automatically review CCTV footage covering a 60km stretch of pipes$ . Rather than a time-consuming manual review, VAPAR’s AI platform claims to $ conduct an assessment in two minutes and reduce costs by more than 30 per cent$ .
Whether you’re leaning on people or technology (or both), setting up a regular system of water quality tracking allows cities to identify problems quickly — and work to fix them before they get any worse.
Creative cleanup programs
Monitoring the quality of water in a community is step one — it can help councils identify problems and pollutants in the supply. What comes next is actually addressing the problems.
Water supply pollution can come in many forms — runoff from local farms or factories, environmental factors and flooding, or pipes that leak wastewater into streams and waterways. Even cities with similar problems may need different approaches to solve them. Because of this, we’re seeing a range of creative solutions to try clean up local water supplies, from $ floating islands covered in plants to absorb polluting sediment$ , to $ cost-sharing programs to encourage at-home stormwater filtration$ .
Take Bonita Springs, FL, where rain causes minerals like nitrates to flow from downtown into the Imperial River. This leads to algae blooms, which cause major problems for local ecosystems.
To prevent the pollutants from reaching the river, $ Bonita Springs is using a combined system of underground filtration chambers$ , which are lined with gravel and wood chips, and a bioreactor, which funnels water into the filter system. All of this is situated beneath a parking lot, a mixed-use approach that maximizes the real estate.
This bioreactor was the first of its kind in the state of Florida. And the results have been impressive: about 98% of the problematic nitrates are now removed from the water. Now, $ says Assistant City Manager Matt Feeney$ , the city is working on enhancing the bioreactor to allow it to run 24/7, essentially serving as a giant Britta filter for the entire city.
Making the public care ... and act
These water quality improvement projects should have long term benefits for their communities. But to make sure water quality is maintained, there’s a critical part of the equation: the public.
When educated and activated appropriately, residents become a powerful tool to expand and promote healthy water quality.
Take $ Randwick, NSW, a city in Australia that recently built the area’s largest water recycling system$ . The program collects stormwater and filters it using UV lights — an innovative approach that preserves about 40 million litres of drinkable water each year.
Randwick’s recycling system is underground, so the city developed outdoor classrooms to illustrate what’s going on beneath the surface. Residents can use QR codes to open interactive exhibits and signs, making them more aware and appreciative of this vital process that’s largely out of sight.
A similar effort is underway in Hendersonville, NC, where the $ city launched a “Stormwater Stroll”$ to educate the public about water quality installments at a local park, including how wetlands, rain gardens, and a bioretention pond all improve the local supply.
Offering transparency and educational resources around a process that most people don’t really understand creates a broader awareness of the need for and impact of water quality efforts. This leads to more public advocacy — and ultimately more funding and support for water quality initiatives.
What’s more, these educational tools don’t need to be on location. In some cases, it’s best to bring the information directly to the people. That’s what $ Milton, FL did to alleviate local concerns around the water quality from a local treatment plant$ . The city used a simple, and not-too-serious tool: a social media stunt.
Local officials had been telling residents the wastewater treated in a local plant and then released into a local river was clean and safe, but $ Jorgenson took it a step further$ :
“Rather than just say it and have people question whether it’s true, I just decided to show them.”
To prove the water was safe, Milton’s city manager Randy Jorgenson drank an entire glass straight from the plant, and posted it on the city’s Facebook page.
Not everyone was a fan of the stunt, but either way, it worked. The video received more than 8,000 views, and generated plenty of conversation about water quality.
Sometimes local governments need citizens to be informed and to act. In these cases, creative engagement techniques focus on making it easy for the public to get involved. In Ringkøbing-Skjern, DK, local officials are $ crowdsourcing bioelement contaminants in local waterways by asking the public to log sightings via an interactive map$ . In Canterbury, NZ, the city devised a $ hands-on communications campaign to get local farmers to comply with strict new water quality standards$ . By proactively reaching out, and providing resources and advice on how to adapt to the new regulations, Canterbury saw a 92% compliance rate among its farmers.
Whether the goal is general awareness or prompting a specific water quality-related action, engaging the public is a must-do in order to promote sustained focus on and support for water treatment innovations.
Collaborating with other communities
As we see over and over again across the innovation projects at Govlaunch, cities and counties who look to others for inspiration and partnership are often better poised to solve problems and enact change. This holds true among water quality projects, too.
Bonita Springs’ bioreactor filtration project was a groundbreaking idea — the Florida League of Cities recognized it with an Environmental Stewardship Award award. But local officials didn’t come up with the concept out of thin air. Instead, they $ drew inspiration from communities in the Midwest$ , who use bioreactors to filter runoff from farms. Bonita Springs took this concept and applied it to river water, a new spin on an existing tactic.
Porirua City Council, NZ, whose roving crew is monitoring the quality of local water, is looking to partner with its neighboring communities to ramp up its efforts, $ says Porirua City Mayor Anita Baker$ :
“If other Councils in the region also support this new initiative through committed investment, the scale will deliver more efficiencies and benefits for each participating Council than can be achieved alone.”
This increased support would allow the crews to expand the tools they use, such as adding drones to the mix.
And in the Midwest (and beyond), a $ collaborative effort is underway along the Mississippi River to track and log plastic pollutants from St. Paul, MN, to Baton Rouge, LA$ . The Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative is uniting local groups and volunteers along the river to log river pollution using a “Marine Debris Tracker” app.
The project, run through the Mississippi Rivers Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI) in partnership with National Geographic and the University of Georgia, recognizes one of the biggest takeaways for cities and counties considering how to manage local water quality: water doesn’t know districts or borders.
When it comes to water, communities near and far are interconnected. Cooperation and the sharing of ideas between local governments to drive innovation can be a ripple that starts the wave of water quality improvements at a larger scale.