What if we tracked our natural resources the same way we track the stock market—with an active ticker providing continuous updates on everything from water quality and soil nutrition to plant health and weather? Well, that’s what researchers at Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston and the Institute of Computational Ecology have envisioned for the Intelligent River Project.
A team of more than 40 scientists, technicians, and engineers have outfitted the Savannah River—which supplies nearly a quarter of the state’s water—with an array of sensors called MoteStacks capable of reporting second-by-second changes in the river’s water quality and levels. Housed in specialized buoys anchored throughout the waterway’s 312 miles, these miniature, battery-powered computers wirelessly transmit data to researchers throughout the state. “We’ve gone beyond the point where humans can manage rivers without the use of computers,” says Dr. Jason Hallstrom of Clemson’s School of Computing, lead developer of the technology used in the project. “This system allows water resource managers to make real-time, science-based decisions to ensure that we use each drop of water wisely.”
In addition to resource management, Intelligent River will play a major role in cleaning up what has become the fourth most-polluted river in the country. With sensors capable of measuring the levels of contaminants in the water supply and cloud-based technology allowing access to up-to-minute data, Intelligent River will provide a way to supervise dumping methods and discharge sites throughout the entire Savannah River basin’s 10,500 square miles. And as the region faces major development and a rapidly increasing population, this focus on resource management will become vital. “As the state grows and demand for resources increases, we must be much smarter about how we use our water,” notes Hallstrom.
While the Intelligent River concept is currently being expanded throughout the state to create the Intelligent Farm in Blackville, which employs ground sensors to measure soil nutrition and nitrogen levels, and the Intelligent Forest in Georgetown, this idea goes well beyond South Carolina. Other countries, as well as the Department of Defense, are looking to the Intelligent River as a testing ground for new projects and innovations in large-scale resource management. Dr. Gene Eidson, project leader and director of Applied Ecology at Clemson, sees the big-picture applications for the project: “Our goal is to create the world’s first automated river and change the way rivers are managed worldwide.”