#StormSnakes – Environmental Art/Monitoring



This project was a LandLab residency at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education marrying art and science. My subject was stormwater run-off at the Center, and I invited Steve Hicks from Stroud Water Research Center to be my partner. Like me, Steve has a love of Arduino and has been experimenting with water monitors for quite some time. With his guidance, I was able to construct a monitor that would read changes in water depth, as well as temperature, humidity and conductivity. The monitor is capable of relaying the information to the internet in real time, making it handy to track storm events.

Part of the LandLab quest is to mitigate the issue, which is not easy when you find an entire ravine being carved out of the side of a hill from stormwater run-off. I decided to make large burlap snakes stuffed with coir, wood chips and stones that would act as water bars. Additional moss tattoos were added to the snakes as part of the experiment, which of course would compost with the rest of the materials over time. The materials were purposely chosen to enrich the soil in breakdown, making it friendly for microbes.

It was interesting to learn how water from storms quickly changes the stream level, yet also reverts back quickly. Without monitoring devices it is hard to see this effect. Although I had originally hoped to write a tutorial for the monitor build of this project, one of the main boards was discontinued. However, Stroud created its own board called The Mayfly, which will simplify DIY water monitoring devices for environmentalists and citizen scientists. So, I hope to now re-build the current monitor on site with the new board and assist with a tutorial for Stroud. Another change that will be made is to increase the size of the solar panel on the unit, as the power sometimes runs out. This can be due to leaf cover in the spring, or just the weather conditions. It takes months to test features in the field and we are still also working on a way to get to the internet as stream beds are usually found in depressions, making it difficult to get to a signal. An antenna on a nearby building was not able to connect and there is also no cell phone signal available. We will most likely need to post a small station nearby to act like a middleman to get the signal out. For now, we are able to change out the data card with the info.

Check out my audio interview which gives more detail, as well as photos and closing notes. I remain excited about this project because it is in one of Philadelphia’s most crucial parks in the watershed and also because it is helping to make water monitoring an affordable option for those that need it the most.


Future Possibilities

Although environmental monitoring is happening, it remains expensive. A typical sensor for water can cost $10K–I actually held one in my hands that was like the Porsche of electronics with a brushed nickel finish! I should add this didn’t even include the board it needs to connect to for logging and power, which tend to be proprietary. Places like Stroud and Public Lab have been working on open source DIY systems to meet the citizen science needs of the world. These new models can be done for a few hundred dollars or less, depending on objectives for sensing. So, any additional work to reduce costs or simplify construction would be my first goals.

Something that is most disturbing about water for me is the newer threat of radiation. This remains relatively a silent issue and is rarely discussed unless there is a nuclear disaster. However, aging nuclear power plants and negligent disposable of waste water, including that from cancer treatment centers, creates opportunities for contamination. Fracking also uses a radioactive tracker in its process and releases naturally occurring radiation from the earth, so there is even more potential for radiation in our drinking water. Not only are there multiple sources of contamination, but there are different types of radiation like Iodine-131, Cesium-134 and Cesium-137. Most places are not equipped to test, and it is expensive. Complicating matters is the EPA’s levels of acceptable exposure, which keep changing. So, one of my dream projects would be to draw attention to the problem of say, Iodine-131, by testing levels in water and translating it to an art project. Better yet, I would want to be part of a team to create an affordable means of sensing different types of radiation. This would be following in the success of Safecast, an open source citizen science project which allows people to build radiation monitors for air quality and map levels. DIY testing allows people to skip the politics, find their own truths and make their own decisions.