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SCCF celebrates 10th anniversary of RECON

By Staff | Jun 21, 2017

An SCCF staff member pulls one of the RECON sensors out of the water to do maintenance. PHOTO PROVIDED

The continuous question of “is this normal,” and “is this unusual,” began a network for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The RECON, (River, Estuary and Coastal Observing Network) came together, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Laboratory Director Eric Milbrandt said, when they were receiving both of those questions simultaneously between Tarpon Bay, Fort Myers and on the beach side of the Gulf of Mexico. He said it became apparent those questions would not be answered with the small staff of a nonprofit.

Milbrandt came from a national program that was run by each state dealing with national estuaries, which are sanctuary estuaries protected for research purposes. In the mid 90’s, he said one of his mentors, and others got together from all of the states to form a national umbrella, the Swamp Network.

“Essentially it was high frequency loggers that are in the water all of the time, so you could understand river flow, or upwelling,” Milbrandt said.

Conversations began with the state agencies and the county government because they all had programs to sample water, which later revealed they were all asking different types of questions. He said they were focused on long-term trends, rather than events.

The sensor is being pulled out of the water to clean it and remove barnacles to ensure it is providing clean data. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We had the opportunity through a land campaign, which was the Bob Wigley Preserve off of Casa Ybel Road, to have a capital campaign to purchase water sensors,” Milbrandt said.

In 2006, the same time period, there was massive algae on the beach, which presented a very visible problem. He said their solution was to “wire up the Caloosahatchee and the Gulf” and see if they could find sources, while looking at salinities, algae blooms and dissolved oxygen levels.

SCCF was able to acquire seven sensors, which were developed in Monterey Bay in California, as well as enough operating money to keep it going for three years.

The RECON Sensor Network is comprised of Research Assistants A.J. Martignette and Jeff Siwicke, as well as Milbrandt.

“If you were to take the three of us as full-time people and go out and sample every single day we could probably get five, or six samples in that area, one per day,” Milbrandt said. “Now we are getting every single day, even weekends, at night, and covering that large area with the same kind of manpower. It’s at the front of where science is right now.”

Martignette said they do six to eight week services on the censors by taking them out of the water, putting them in the boat and cleaning them. He said the optical sensors they clean every four to eight weeks to eliminate things growing on them.

The cleaning also includes knocking off barnacles from the equipment.

Before the equipment is placed at the sites, everything is covered in a plastic tape, painted, and the wires are wrapped with copper.

“A lot of effort goes into the prep to avoid . . . we are basically just fighting barnacles,” Siwicke said. “The more prep that we do, the better quality data we get and the longer we can leave them out there with getting clean data.”

The sensors are placed on channel markers, after being put into a cage, which is mounted on the pilings.

“We were the first people in the world with this particular setup,” Martignette said.

He designed a clamp shell that goes around the piling, making it easier to remove the cage and sensor once it needs to be cleaned. This was designed so the sensor goes directly back to the same location it came from.

“We have to get into the water on most of our sites to do service on them,” Siwicke said.

The duo works on two sensors a day when they are out on the water – ones that are close to one another.

Every year, the entire sensor comes back to the lab, cleaned and sent back to the manufacture for yearly services and collaboration.

The first sensor deployment took place in Tarpon Bay on Ralph Woodring’s dock on June 12, 2007.

“Mr. Woodring has always been very supportive of the lab and water quality is really important to him personally. It was kind of symbolic,” Milbrandt said.

The lab was able to record some interesting data from Tarpon Bay that was turned into a scientific paper regarding the export of high salinity and high tandon water, in a really good journal.

Over the next year, more sensors were deployed on various pilings throughout the area.

Siwicke said each one of the sensors used to run off of 30 D cell batteries, which would keep it functioning for a month. He said over the course of five, or six years, each one has been converted over to solar power.

SCCF has 14 million data points from their RECON project, which expands 35 linear miles from Beautiful Island in the Gulf of Mexico to Sanibel Island.

“One of the things that we realized is even though we have seven, or eight sensors that covers this large area, there is still so much in-between that needs to be studied more,” Milbrandt said.

The RECON has provided a great deal of information for SCCF. One of which, is information about S79, the structure that is at the head of the Caloosahatchee.

“The volume of water that comes down is the driver of all the water quality properties in this area. In the summer you have high flows, you have subsequent downstream effects. When you have low flows in the winter, the salt wedge moves up the Caloosahatchee, up to Fort Myers, and upwards,” he said. “I think as the Everglades restoration proceeds, and we get fewer discharges based on having more storage, we think that will have large scale positive influences. It will improve things greatly, especially around the Sanibel causeway and the area near Shell Point.”

In addition, the network has provided data of changes in sea grasses. The number of shoots goes down during a wet period, which decreases the value of the habitat for fish and shrimp. Milbrandt said the dry year does well for the sea grass at the causeway.

“We are seeing patterns related to the quality of habitat,” he said.

With the recent rainstorms the area has witnessed, the network has depicted the salinity level fall at their sensor at Shell Point. The salinity level was around 30 (sea water is 34) before the rain. After six inches of rain accumulated, the salinity went down to 12.

“A third of what they were the day before,” Milbrandt said.

In addition, RECON has been instrumental in communication with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a joint project between the federal government and the state of Florida. He said they have the job of moving water around, which is difficult because there is not enough storage and at times too much water.

With SCCF as one of the stakeholders, Milbrandt said they listen to their recommendations.

“We get together with the city, with the City of Cape Coral, Fort Myers Beach, Lee County, ‘Ding’ Darling. We look at our data and put it into a two page memo every week and send it to them and have a conference call. We basically say, ‘if this were up to us this is how you can help,'” he said. “They do listen to us.”

Looking ahead:

Milbrandt said they continue to look for ways to improve the system. Unfortunately because of technology one of the original goals never realized was the ability to measure nutrients in the water.

Now in the lab, they have new technology and sensors for three places that have nitrogen and phosphorous capability. He said they are going to add those at a couple of sites and see how it goes.

“The value of that data is really high in this area because we know we have high nutrient problems,” Milbrandt said. “We are getting ready to put those out this year.”

In addition, SCCF is expanding their wave height buoy. The buoy is being replaced and they are adding another wave height application – one off of Lanai Kai and the other near Blind Pass.

Those who would like to see the data collected, as well as information about various habitats, can visit www.recon.sccf.org.

Milbrandt said to sustain something for 10 years and do it at the geographic scale that they have done it is pretty impressive for a nonprofit organization.

“It just goes to show that one, the data are useful for more than just scientists. I think that is probably one of the main factors that has kept sustaining it. The other thing is it allows you to evaluate events as they happen,” he said of cold fronts, storms, water releases and tides. “You can watch them happen and a week later you can evaluate them. Being able to talk about why things are happening to nontechnical people has really been the most powerful thing about this.”