CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University scientists have developed new technology that can provide continuous "real time" monitoring of water quality in river systems and water treatment plants, detecting everything from trace metals to nitrate levels and organic compounds.

The technology could have an enormous impact on efforts to improve drinking water and clean up the Willamette River and other river systems.

"We now have the ability to make measurements continually, which takes the uncertainty and the guesswork out of monitoring," said Gary Klinkhammer, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at OSU, who developed the technology. "In a best case scenario, monitoring agencies may take one water sample in a week, or more likely in a month or three months. That's not good enough.

"With 'real time' data collection, you literally have continuous monitoring," he added. "It will allow us to better understand how a river system works, determine what is normal, identify when problems occur, and trace them as they move."

The technology is a refinement of instrumentation Klinkhammer developed in the early 1990s called a zero angle photon spectrometer, or ZAPS probe. Using fiber optics and ultraviolet light, the probe can sit in the water and detect trace metals, organic matter, nitrates and some toxic compounds as small as one part per billion.

A small computer in the probe sends the digitized data to OSU, where it can be collected, stored and analyzed using the supercomputers in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. The college has one of the largest networks of supercomputers in the world dedicated to oceanic and atmospheric research.

Klinkhammer and his colleagues have developed many of their techniques working in the Columbia River for the past six years on a project funded by the Office of Naval Research to monitor the river's water chemistry and turbidity.

In addition to continuous monitoring, the ZAPS probe has the ability to make measurements that few other instruments can. Klinkhammer says the probe can measure the organic part of a water system; in rivers like the Willamette and the Columbia, those organic compounds are the natural product of decaying vegetation.

The organic compounds are important for a number of reasons. They can attract other materials that do not occur naturally - like dioxins - and solubilize them, potentially increasing their toxicity. "They can make those compounds nastier and instead of being absorbed into the river bottom, they get into the fish or our drinking water," Klinkhammer said.

On the plus side, he pointed out, organic compounds give the river its color and odor, creating for each river a unique "signature" that helps salmon and other anadromous fish navigate to their spawning grounds. The probe also measures metals, including manganese, which can be a fertile feeding ground for bacteria and lead to damaged pipes in water treatment plants. Likewise, it measures iron, which helps form rust and also is a building block for microbes.

Nitrates measured by the probe, often the result of fertilizers entering the water, are an important indicator of non-point pollution and a key to determining water quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The ZAPS probe does not measure dioxins but, Klinkhammer said that "over time, we could develop the indicators which would tell us of their presence."

Klinkhammer said he hopes to begin working with water treatment plants in Oregon - especially along the Willamette River - to begin developing some baseline data. He already has an agreement with a plant in Corvallis to begin using the probe to collect data there, perhaps as early as January.

"The immediate application is for water treatment plants," Klinkhammer said, "because there is a sense of urgency among Oregonians for better water quality and better safeguards. In the long run, it will be important to see how river systems work; what human factors and natural factors affect the water in quantifiable ways, and how well we can predict river 'events.'

"Right now, we don't really know how a river responds to basic occurrences - like rain - and whether some of these elements or compounds are stored in the groundwater and then flushed out, or enter the river in some other way," he added.

Klinkhammer said the cost of the ZAPS probe ranges from $6,000 to $8,000, but the real expense is in the collection and analysis of data. Whatever the cost, he says, it will be worthwhile.

"It is important to get started," he said. "Who knows what we are missing because we monitor water by taking only sporadic samples? Murphy's law says bad things are not going to happen when you're standing there with a bucket.

"But you still know they're happening."

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Gary Klinkhammer, 541-737-5209