Super gage along the Wabash River in New Harmony, Indiana.
Super gage Super gage along the Wabash River in New Harmony, Indiana. © Mike Dunn/TNC

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Small But Powerful: It’s the Super Gage!

New device along the Wabash River will help track water quality trends.

New Harmony, IN

Sitting atop a bridge spanning the Wabash River in New Harmony is a small contraption producing big data. It’s the super gage, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and its partners are counting on it to provide data useful for improving water quality in Indiana’s largest river.

The gage, an invention of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), will provide real‐time, continuous measurements of physical and chemical water characteristics every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

At nearly 500 miles long, the Wabash River spans the entire state of Indiana and also drains portions of Illinois and Ohio. With 4,400,000 Hoosiers living within its watershed, the Wabash and its tributaries, including the Tippecanoe and White Rivers, provide drinking water for 72 percent of Indiana’s counties.

The Wabash River also sends a disproportionate amount of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff and sediment down toward the Mississippi River and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the hypoxic Dead Zone, an area about the size of Delaware where nothing can survive. In fact, according to USGS, the Wabash is one of the leading contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The super gage is generating powerful data on system‐wide water quality trends, including nitrogen and phosphorus,” says Larry Clemens, state director for TNC’s Indiana chapter. “Farmers, the commodity associations, state and federal partners, academic institutions and other conservation organizations have long been deeply aligned on the need for better data on the Wabash. This will tell us whether our water quality is getting better or worse so we can make more informed management decisions, and not only for agriculture but also how we manage stormwater in our cities.”

Up until the super gage’s installation this year, conservation partners working along the Wabash River had to largely rely upon models to provide insight into the river’s water quality.

“We were using models that were several years old and we needed something better to illustrate the effectiveness of our soil conservation practices that we championed in Indiana. The gage allows us to observe what is happening, in real time, on the Wabash,” says Jordan Seger, Deputy Director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), one of TNC’s conservation partners.

The Super Gage

What they needed was a super gage. But super gages are not cheap. A typical super gage on a major river costs several hundred thousand dollars.

Generous funding from Nestlé Purina PetCare, which has supported TNC’s work along the Wabash River for the past three years, put the super gage process into motion. Additional funding from Walton Family Foundation, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation and the ISDA secured the deal.

“Nestlé Purina’s pet foods rely on high-quality ingredients sourced from farms in the United States, including in the Wabash region,” says Diane Herndon, Senior Manager of Sustainability at Nestlé Purina. “We’re committed to responsible sourcing and supporting stewardship efforts in our supply chain that help protect the environment for future generations.”

“The Nature Conservancy and its partners are doing great work to reforest and reconnect the Wabash River to its flood plain, allowing soil and nutrients to settle out and cleaner water to continue downstream,” adds Herndon. “The super gage will be a helpful tool to demonstrate real progress and opportunities for water quality.”

“By investing in state‐of‐the‐art equipment needed to track system‐wide progress, Purina’s investment will be a powerful catalyst to mobilize people, partners, dollars, and data for conservation progress and water quality improvement in the Wabash River,” Clemens said.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.