EPA opens floodgates on water-quality data

For more than three decades, comprehensive data about water quality has been locked inside an Environmental Protection Agency mainframe, accessible only to researchers with the expertise to query it. But that will change as the EPA updates the systems, which are a major source of information about the condition of the nation's waterways.

Earlier this month the EPA began distributing a CD-ROM containing a new software package that state and local agencies can use to report information they collect from water-quality monitoring stations throughout the country. The data these agencies provide will be formatted for a new Oracle Corp. database that the EPA Office of Water plans to offer on its World Wide Web site next year.

The modernization of the Storage and Retrieval (Storet) database is the first by the Public Health Service since its creation in 1964. Federal environmental officials believe the project will encourage more state, local and private organizations to contribute data to the system and make it easier for anyone to use.

Lee Manning, who is one of several Storet project managers, said users will be able to upload the data using the Internet File Transfer Protocol, or even e-mail, to export data easily from the system for analysis by commercial statistical and geographic information system packages. "In the new system you can create an export file as a standard report using point and click," he said.

Researchers use the data in Storet to establish baselines for the environmental conditions in a river, ocean or wetland. Richard Lester, environmental program administrator for the Passaic County, N.J., Department of Health, said access to Storet data could help him pinpoint possible sources of pollution in local waterways.

But until now, Lester said, he has not used the system because the only way he could get access to it was through state government agencies. "If it's going to be available online now, I can access it directly," he said.

"There hasn't been a centralized water-quality database available in New Jersey," said Paul Morton, who designs software applications for the state Bureau of Freshwater and Environmental Monitoring. Not many people knew how to use the mainframe version of Storet, he added, but now "anybody who has a browser will be able to hit that site and pull the data out."

The Storet system combines three EPA databases: the old Storet system, the Biological Information System and the Ocean Data Evaluation System. Robert King, another EPA project manager, said the modernization cost $4.5 million, including requirements analysis, development costs for the CD-ROM software and the creation of a Legacy Data Center to maintain some 250 million water-quality observations that are stored in the system.

"We estimate our clients' investment in that data to be worth over $2 billion," Manning said. "We intend to provide access to that data forever."

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