EPA: Using maps to make sense of water pollution data

EPA's map-based "How's My Waterway?" app allows users to check pollution levels in almost any U.S. lake, river or other waterway.

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West Virginians did not need an app to know that the Elk River had been contaminated when this Freedom Industries facility’s retaining wall failed, but there are tens of thousands of less famous waterways that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as polluted. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In early 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water began an effort to simplify how it conveys the complex information it has collected for decades.

Nine months later, the agency launched a map-based application called "How's My Waterway?" that allows users to check pollution levels in almost any U.S. lake, river or other waterway via the Web. The project's launch coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which requires states to report data on waterways to the EPA. The agency in turn periodically updates Congress on the condition of the nation's waterways.

That data has always been available to the public, but until "How's My Waterway?" it was compiled in technical databases and used mainly by scientists who knew what it meant and how to access it.

Now anyone can input a ZIP Code or select his or her current location from any Web-connected device and receive basic information on whether a waterway is polluted and when it was last assessed. Users can move around the map to other waterways or click on a specific one to get more details, such as the nature of the pollutants and what is being done to mitigate the problem -- all of which is presented in terms that the average user can understand.

The tool has been so popular that in the weeks right after its launch, the high volume of users caused the site to crash several times, said Doug Norton, senior environmental scientist in the Office of Water. Tens of thousands of people now use the application on a regular basis, with rates that fluctuate depending on the season and weather.

In short, mapping technology "proved to be a terrific mode of communication in getting points across and informing the public," Norton said.

It was also cost-effective because it did not require a lengthy procurement process. Instead, a team of 12 watershed scientists, public outreach experts and coders used existing data and worked with the contractor that managed EPA's technical database.

"'How's My Waterway?' was an effort to take existing datasets in our technical database and just configure them in an easier, more user-friendly manner," Norton said. "We were able to get information in tabular and map form, and that is what enables us to use GIS and mapping as an effective part."

The app recently won the first Igniting Innovation award from the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council. And because EPA's databases are continually updated with new information, the agency's small investment in using maps to educate users will continue to pay dividends for a long time.

NEXT STORY: Why maps matter

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