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USask Nutrient App kit engages community to take lead on algal blooms

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The University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security has designed a new community-based sampling app kit to engage citizens, farmers and water quality managers in identifying and remediating algal bloom hotspots through the real-time monitoring of dissolved nutrient concentrations in wells, streams, wetlands and lakes.

Called the Nutrient App, the mobile application allows users to dip and photograph test strips for nitrates and phosphates to instantaneously measure nutrient loads with an accuracy of <30% based on inexpensive commercially available test kits.

The cost of algal blooms for Lake Erie alone — arguably one of the best-known Canadian lakes impacted by algal blooms — is estimated to amount to $5.3 billion over 30 years if nothing is done to reduce phosphorus loading to the lake, experts estimate.

In summer 2017, cyanobacteria discovered in a popular Victoria-area lake in British Columbia was suspected in the deaths of several dogs on Vancouver Island. That same year, research by the University of Alberta indicated that the cyanobacterial toxin microcystin had been found in 246 water bodies in Canada.

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“Community-based monitoring creates awareness of environmental problems and provides tremendous opportunities to address the need for research data resulting from lack of stable funding for monitoring programs,” said University of Saskatchewan research scientist Diogo Costa in an interview for the school’s 2020 Young Innovators series.

In collaboration with computer scientists Banani Roy and Kevin Schneider, Costa, who also works with Environment and Climate Change Canada, developed the app as part of his recent post-doctoral work in hydrology with colleagues John Pomeroy, Helen Baulch and Jane Elliott.

To measure nitrate with the app, a user simply dips a test strip into the water in question, then photographs the strip against the provided reference point to upload to the app. To measure phosphate, a user fills a vial with the water sample, mixes it with the reagents found in the kit, and photographs the vial against the provided reference point to upload to the app. The app can then calculate the estimated concentrations of both nitrate and phosphate.

The app will log the test results and the sample location for future reference. The results can be sent to a USask database that creates a map of the nutrient hotspots available on the app’s website. The measurements are georeferenced and can be uploaded to a server managed by the Global Institute for Water Security’s data management team. The results will be displayed in a map that can be visualized directly through the app or from a web browser for further analysis.

Full guidelines for the app and its measurements can be found here. The app is available for Android on Google Play and iOS in the Apple Store.

The app project is funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the USask Global Water Futures research program.

App Facts

  • To enhance the potential and accuracy of cheap instantaneous colorimetric based test kits
  • The Nutrient App measures both NO3 and PO4, but can potentially be extended to other water quality variables
  • Cost: ~ $1/ Sample
  • Measurement of NO3 using Hach Nitrate Test Strips
  • Measurement of PO4 using API Phosphate Test Kit
  • Measurement Range:
    • NO3: 0-50 mg/l
    • PO4: 0-10 mg/l

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