April 27 --Bad data from water quality sensors in three Indian River County canals have led to a plan for a serious funding cut for 50 more of the devices spread throughout the Indian River Lagoon .
Because of problems with three Kilroy devices developed by the Ocean Research & Conservation Association of Fort Pierce , state Sen. Joe Negron , R- Stuart , plans to cut a request in the budget being considered Friday by the Florida Legislature from $5 million to $2 million .
Negron and a special Senate committee on lagoon restoration he leads had recommended $4 million for ORCA to install 50 more Kilroys to study pollutants in the 156-mile lagoon, plus $1 million to develop corrective action plans based on what they find.
Negron said Saturday he'll ask for $2 million for Kilroys and will drop his request for $1 million for the action plans.
"Some serious concerns have been raised about the operation of the Kilroys," Negron said Friday, before announcing his decision. "I have a commitment to only fund technology in the budget that I have full confidence in."
The $2 million for ORCA now equals the $2 million Negron and his committee are seeking for Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce to install six Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory sensors, known as LOBOs, in the St. Lucie River estuary in Martin County .
Negron said he'll suggest the $3 million "freed up" by cutting Kilroy funding go toward construction of the proposed C-43 Canal reservoir designed to store water flowing west from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River estuary.
Edith "Edie" Widder , CEO and lead scientist at ORCA, admits there have been problems with nitrogen sensors on the Kilroys deployed in Indian River County ; but she says conditions in the canals and the lagoon are vastly different, so the problems won't be repeated.
Christopher R. Mora , the Indian River County public works director who's been monitoring the Kilroys' performance, isn't so sure.
"Could a different environment result in similar problems? I guess it could," Mora said.
Looking like a football with legs, Kilroys monitor water speed, direction, temperature, salinity and depth 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and transmit the data to researchers via cellphone. Designed and manufactured by ORCA, each Kilroy costs about $23,000 .
In December 2012 , Indian River County commissioners approved a plan to have ORCA put a Kilroy in each of three canals -- known as the North, South and Main relief canals -- to determine how much nitrogen they dump into the lagoon.
"At this point we're not trying to locate the source (of the nitrogen)," Mora said. "To do that, we'd have to put several Kilroys in the canals until we could pinpoint how far upstream (nitrogen) starts entering the water. At some time we might want to do that, but we're not there yet."
The county's contract called for a $73,050 payment to ORCA in 2013 to pay for installing the Kilroys and the first year of monitoring, and $18,000 in 2014 and 2015 for continued monitoring.
In February, Mora reported to the commission the Kilroys "have reported poorly defined readings of both nitrogen and water flow speed. The measurements display numerous spikes for no apparent reason."
To test the Kilroys' accuracy, county staffers took manual water samples near the sensor in the Main Relief Canal for five days.
"The five-day grab sample and shows a very stable 0.21 to 0.23 milligrams of nitrates (nitrogen) per liter of canal water," Mora reported to the commission, while the reading on the nearby Kilroy unit was "erratic and spiking and, for more than half of the five-day period, indicates there is zero nitrogen in the Main Relief Canal ."
PROBLEM WITH ADD-ON
Widder admitted there have been erroneous readings, but said problems are with a nitrogen sensor not made by ORCA that was added to the Kilroys.
ORCA staffers attached sensors used to detect nitrogen in freshwater, Widder said, only to discover saltwater well below the surface of the canal.
"There's no way there should be any saltwater in that canal, but there is," Widder said.
Also, the sensors use sunlight to measure nitrogen levels, she said, and the canal water is often murky.
"The water in those canals can go from clear to murky in the matter of an hour," Widder said. "No sensor can fully deal with this problem."
Since his February report, Mora said, the commissioners agreed to give ORCA "a chance to fix the bad readings from the past and correct the sensors so that we'll get good readings going forward. We're in the middle of that process right now. (ORCA staffers have) gone back and restudied the data the Kilroys have collected and come up with a much smoother flow chart."
Widder said the Kilroys are "giving us some good data, although it's not all good all the time. There's a lot of nitrogen coming out of these canals; some of it is in spikes, but most of it is in a steady outflow. We're still pretty confident in the technology we're using."
The Kilroys in the three Indian River County canals are among 14 ORCA has deployed in coastal waterways between Vero Beach and Stuart .
The Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart has five of the Kilroys, three with added-on sensors to measure dissolved oxygen and acidity, but not nitrogen.
Executive Director Mark Perry said the Kilroys have been virtually problem-free.
"We need more water quality monitors in the lagoon," he said. "Having that electronic, real-time data is really beneficial. But you have to have backups, then check the readings and calibrations periodically to make sure the devices are working properly."
Widder said Kilroys placed throughout the lagoon under the state-funded plan won't face the same challenges as those in the Indian River canals. For example, the lagoon is known to have brackish water, a combination of salty and freshwater; so ORCA will use sensors for saltwater. And although lagoon water can turn murky, it doesn't change as rapidly as the fast-moving canal water.
"The three canals these Kilroys were placed in are a pretty caustic environment," Mora said. "There's a pretty rough, turbulent flow of water and a lot of sand and grit flowing along the bottom. These problems could happen again in other locations, but I've got to believe the folks at ORCA have learned a lot from our contract."
Indian River County Commissioner Tim Zorc called the experience with the Kilroys "an eye-opener."
"I hope that the state Legislature, or whoever pays for a lagoon-wide study, and with whatever sensors they choose to use, has ways to ensure they're getting accurate information," he said. "Otherwise they could be chasing a ghost. The state needs to be proactive, to figure out a way to spot check and backcheck data. We didn't have quality control in our contract, and we should have."
Developed by Ocean Research & Conservation Association founder and marine biologist Edie Widder ; nicknamed for the long-nosed character in "Kilroy was here" cartoons during World War II. Like that character, Kilroy devices are designed to be omnipresent.
Cost: $23,000 each
Water flow, direction and speed
With additional sensors, Kilroys can measure chemical contaminants in the water.
With ORCA's bathyphotometer, Kilroys can measure key microorganisms, including those responsible for red tides that produce paralytic shellfish poison.
With third-party sensors, Kilroys have unlimited capabilities.
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