Water quality sensor hitching ride on Mississippi River boat

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A data-gathering sensor attached to the American Queen steamboat will give scientists and cities a better understanding of water quality along the entire length of the Mississippi River, officials said Monday.

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U.S. Geological Survey and Army Corps of Engineers officials, a group of Mississippi River city mayors and the operators of the American Queen gathered to show off the new equipment on the steam-driven vessel in Memphis. The stately steamboat is the first private vessel to carry a sensor that gathers data to help preserve and restore ecosystems, and to buoy economies of cities and towns up and down the heavily traveled commercial waterway.

Good water quality is vital for cities that get their drinking water from the river. Mississippi River water is also used for industrial purposes such as farm irrigation and beverage manufacturing, and by tourists who enjoy fishing, kayaking and other recreational activities.

Although 3,700 sensors are already in fixed locations along the river, officials say the American Queen's mobile device will help build a larger picture of water quality as the vessel travels from Minnesota to Louisiana. It will help identify areas where nitrogen from farms, lawns and even sewage systems affect water quality, even in the Gulf of Mexico. It also will help municipalities use the data to target specific ecosystem renewal and other types of projects, and ask the federal government for funding for them, officials said.

"No one wants to hunt, fish, paddle or cruise in or near water full of algae due to nutrient surge," said Marco McClendon, mayor of West Memphis, Arkansas. "We need to know what's in our water to keep it clean."

The steamboat sensor will gather water temperatures, levels of turbidity, oxygen and nitrates, and other data every five minutes, said Jim Reilly, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Data is then sent to government offices, municipalities and other stakeholders for their analysis and use, Reilly said.

Mississippi River sensors also gather information on nitrogen and phosphorus that flows down the river from farms and other sources. Those chemicals wind up in the Gulf Mexico, creating a large oxygen-starved "dead zone" south of Louisiana every summer.

Meanwhile, a kiosk installed on the American Queen will let travelers learn about the project and how the data will help create a better understanding of the importance of good water quality on the Mississippi River.

That's a great way to inform tourists from across the country, said Louisiana State University and University of Michigan scientists who have separately been using nutrient data for nearly two decades to forecast the dead zone's likely size.

"My guess is very few people on the boat know about the connection between the river and the dead zone. I think that's going to be helpful," said Don Scavia, professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Scientists can learn from it, too.

The steamboat "would pass by junctions of two distributaries, which might tell us a little about the mixing of two water masses," said R. Eugene Turner, of LSU's Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences.

The boat's equipment might show agriculture, industry or sewage "hot spots," he said, adding: "They might look at it as a detective going up and down" the river.

Scavia said dead zone forecasts probably will continue to use stationary monitors "since the models are calibrated to that."

But the steamboat sensor could be useful as it gathers data all along the river, not just at individual points on the waterway, Scavia said.

"It should be helpful in building river models," he said.