SANIBEL, Fla — For 15 years, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation has watched water quality through what is called the River, Estuary, and Coastal Observing Network or RECON for short. Each RECON system carries multiple sensors to measure dissolved oxygen levels, salinity, and chlorophyll at 7 separate locations, from Pine Island Sound to Fort Myers Beach to Caloosahatchee River in real-time, at any time.
“We didn’t feel like there was enough information, especially information on discharge events, red tide events, and varies other algae blooms that were happening then,” said Dr. Eric Milbrandt, the director of the SCCF Marine Laboratory.
The original RECON system was only designed to last 5 years, but the foundation was able to get 15 years of use out of the system.
“This is equipment, that is electronic equipment, in the marine environment and a lot of times underwater,” said Dr. Milbrandt. “So, it was not expected to last very long. And we were able to make it last longer than 10 years.”
With the help of donors and public funds from the city of Sanibel and Lee County, the foundation is now replacing and upgrading the RECON system. Each RECON unit costs around $41,000.
“It has newer technology, in terms of data communication, it has better sensors, more sensitive to the kind of changes that we are looking for in terms of the amount of algae in the water and other things like devolved oxygen,” said Dr. Milbrandt.
Along with upgrading the 7 existing RECON locations, SCCF is adding two new monitoring locations along the Caloosahatchee River in Alva and Moore Haven, thanks to two new grants from the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These two spots will carry an additional sensor to monitor phycocyanin, which is a blue pigment found in blue-green algae.
“These are sensors that will detect blue-green algae or cyanobacteria in an improved way and distinguish them from other phytoplankton that are not as concerned about, that don’t pose a human health risk,” said Dr. Milbrandt.
These sensors will allow for rapid detection of algal blooms and responses to lead to more research when necessary. This data will help drive new models to help scientists understand past events and conditions that sparked devastating algae blooms in the super bloom in 2018.
“So, what we need to do is know the specific triggers,” said Dr. Milbrandt. “We generally know what they are, but it is a very dynamic system. And having a lot more continuous data, in more places will help us understand that.”
SCCF is currently testing these new sensors and hopes to have these new sites up and running by next month.