Students explore new EPA water quality data as part of Challenge.gov

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About a decade ago, the Environmental Protection Agency realized information about the country’s surface water sources was spotty and inconsistent.

Some states and tribes did a top-notch job tracking the state of their bodies of water; others, not so much. And no one was doing monitoring in the same way or utilizing the same lab standards to analyze results.

More to the point, if a member of the public turned to the EPA to ask about the water quality of a lake in Louisiana versus one in Michigan, the agency wasn’t equipped to provide a direct comparison.

The National Aquatic Resources Surveys came about to change that.

Sarah Lehmann, team leader for NARS, described the program as a comprehensive effort to provide nationally-consistent and “scientifically-defensible” assessments of waters. With this data it’s much easier — and more accurate — tracking water conditions over time.

“We extrapolate not just from sites we sample, but complete sets of waters in all 48 contiguous states,” she said. “We’re aiming to assess all surface waters. That’s rivers, streams, wetlands [and] coastal waters. And then we use standard field and lab protocols.”

From the surveys, the NARS staff within EPA can report on biological conditions of water bodies, such as the fish communities present, key stressors in terms of nutrients, recreational conditions and so forth.

“It’s really to fill that gap that we’ve had for decades,” Lehmann said. “We put a lot of money into protecting and restoring our waters, but we need to be monitoring that as well in a systematic way.”

NARS operates in cycles. One year the studies will focus on lakes, then on river and stream data collection (which is being done starting this summer) for the following two years. Soon, wetlands data will be included and measured, too. Overall, the process is done across five years and then repeated over and over, indefinitely, “so we don’t just look at snapshots in time,” according to Lehmann.

The newest development for NARS, as this long-term monitoring continues, is the program’s inclusion in Challenge.gov, a collection of challenge and prize competitions run by more than 50 agencies across federal government. Challenge competitors present a means for federal agencies to reach outside of the government sphere and tap into the public’s talent as they solve problems.

In the case of NARS, this was an ideal fit, Lehmann said. The NARS Challenge, which just closed its idea submission period, asked universities and college students to come up with new applications for NARS data.

The staff and resources in the EPA dedicated to the aquatic studies are limited, so Lehmann wanted to “get some additional minds looking at these data sets.”

“We certainly don’t have the market on everything someone can do with this data and interesting ways of looking at it,” she said. “We thought that a challenge configuration would give us an opportunity to reach out to students, their university and their advisers to encourage them to look at that data. It would allow them to learn from us and for us to learn from them.”

Besides specifying the competition was for universities and university students, there were deliberately few parameters for proposals. Lehmann said she could have gone in one of two ways: either make it very constraining or very open-ended.

She decided to go with the latter. The  NARS Challenge.gov entry only calls for “using NARS data to conduct further scientific research and analysis.”

That doesn’t mean all data sets need to be applied; just whichever ones students think fit. Lehmann said she also encouraged applicants to hone in on water sources weighted more heavily in the program. For instance, there are far more small lakes than large lakes nationally, so analyzing data from small lakes can have a more widespread impact.

At this point, NARS is wading through 24 applications to its challenge program, which is a higher total than expected, given it’s the first time. Winners will be selected in stages during the next year and are eligible for thousands of dollars in prizes.

The proposals feature an array of ideas and data. Three propose using data from NARS’ coastal survey data, 10 from lake data and 11 from data related to rivers and streams. Once the proposals are whittled down and winners are selected, the goal is to get them out in the public.

Information will be posted online and updated regularly. And, the universities selected will present their analysis of the water quality data to state partners, through webinars and at meetings to give their work more exposure.

Lehmann, at the same time, is continually trying to promote the NARS data, which is available to the public. Getting not just academics and government agencies, but also everyday Americans, to pay attention to water quality and learn the conditions of lakes and streams near them is the major impetus. So driving engagement is a continual focus as data collection happens.

“This is an unbelievably exciting program in the sense that we can now talk about the extent that waters are healthy versus having certain types of problems,” she added. “The fact that we now have similar data collected at tens of thousands of data points across the country is a major deal.”

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Agencies, Challenge.gov, data analytics, Departments, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Government IT News, Innovation, open data, Tech
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