5 mins read 30 Mar 2023

AquaWatch Mission to Keep Eye on Water Quality from Orbit

A new dedicated mission, AquaWatch, will keep an eye on Australia’s water quality - providing real-time updates, and allowing better water management practices and recreational uses.

Artist impression of the AquaWatch system including in-situ water sensors, remote satellite sensors, and data hub for integration of sensor data and AI modelling. Credit: CSIRO.

Last week, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, launched the AquaWatch Australia Mission - a program to deliver the world’s first ground-to-space water quality monitoring system for Australia and the world. Once fully operational, AquaWatch will be analogous to regular weather updates and services delivered to millions of devices - providing real-time updates and predictive forecasting of water quality. 

Integrating with an extensive network of Earth Observation satellites and ground-based water sensors, AquaWatch will support better water quality management, with early warning of harmful events such as toxic algal blooms, blackwater and runoff contamination. 

Earlier this month, NSW saw another one of these devastating events when millions of fish were found dead in the Darling River in Menindee, located in NSW’s far west. The disaster, which is set to have an enormous impact on the river ecology was caused by low dissolved oxygen levels, triggered by recent flooding that created conditions in which organic material and sediments remained in the water, deteriorating water quality. Experts fear this will not be the last of such an event. 

The AquaWatch mission will keep a watchful eye, from orbit and through in-situ sensors across Australian waterways and coastal regions, helping increase the resilience of Australian communities that depend on good quality water for their livelihood and agriculture. CSIRO, with foundation partner SmartSat CRC, is bringing together research, government, and industry with an initial co-investment of $83 million to co-design and develop Aquawatch. 

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite is one source of satellite data for the AquaWatch Mission. Credit: ESA.

CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Larry Marshall said water is one of the most important and vital resources in Australia and across the globe.

“Imagine taking your family to the local swimming spot and being able to open your phone and check the water quality before they dive in,” said Dr Marshall, also commenting on how water is one of the most vital resources on the planet. 

“Or better yet, getting a forecast for the water quality days before you planned your family day out. Now imagine the impact of this if you were an environment manager, able to receive advance warning of the oxygen-depleted blackwater events often responsible for mass fish kills. Or an aquaculture farmer able to plan ahead for an impending algal bloom.”

“Overseas, in places where people still face the risk of unsafe water for basic needs like drinking and sanitation, such a service could be a game-changer,” he said. “The ingenuity behind AquaWatch is it integrates Earth observation with other science capabilities like in-situ sensing, ecosystem modelling, engineering, data science and artificial intelligence. It is the latest example of CSIRO’s Missions Program which are large-scale scientific and collaborative research initiatives aimed at accelerating the pace and scale at which we can solve some of the nation’s greatest challenges.” 

Satellite image from Sentinel Hub showing sediment flow from the Fitzroy River out to Keppel Bay and the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: European Union, contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023, processed with EO Browser.

"As the AquaWatch foundational partner, SmartSat’s collaboration with CSIRO has established a number of key pilot projects aimed at developing technologies to effectively monitor and manage this essential resource,” said SmartSat CRC Chief Executive Officer Professor Andy Koronios.

“The initial suite of co-operative projects brings together research partners, government and industry and cover integrated ground-to-space water quality monitoring systems for inland, estuarine and near-coastal water bodies. The AquaWatch partnership is a prime example of the benefits of cross-agency collaboration and demonstrates how much we are able to achieve when we combine our efforts and know-how for the benefits of all Australians.”

“This collaborative effort to harness the data gathered from satellites will play an essential role in safeguarding our future water supply and improving our natural environments,” he said.

HydraSpectra water sensor mounted on a buoy at Lake Tuggeranong in Canberra, where CSIRO are monitoring for toxic blue-green algae blooms. Credit: CSIRO.

Data from both the sensors in the water and on the satellites will then be integrated at a central data hub where CSIRO’s capability in data analysis and AI can provide forecasts a few days ahead. AquaWatch already has six pilot sites set up around the country to test the system for several uses such as monitoring toxic blue-green algae blooms at Lake Tuggeranong in Canberra, a popular spot for recreation.

It is also being tested around our coasts, with another pilot focused on how sediment flow from the Fitzroy River out to the Great Barrier Reef affects water quality. Additional pilots established overseas will demonstrate how AquaWatch can be used to monitor water quality for drinking, sanitation, species conservation, hydroelectricity and carbon sequestration in mangrove forests.

The AquaWatch Mission brings together a large number of local and international institutions, including CSIRO with SmartSat CRC and a network of collaborators to develop and implement the system including government, the ACT Government’s Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate; NSW Department of Planning and Environment; Queensland Department of Environment and Science; South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI); Western Australia’s Department of Water and Environmental Regulation; along with industry BiOceanOr; Hunter Water; universities and research organisations including ANU Institute for Water Futures; ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society; Curtin University; La Trobe University; University of Queensland (Reef Catchments Science Partnership and Remote Sensing Research Centre); the multi-agency Joint Remote Sensing Research Program; and international collaborators including CSIRO Chile; Hanoi University of Mining and Geology; Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus; University of California, Davis; University of California, Merced; Vietnam’s National Center for Water Resources and Investigation.