When a recent algal bloom in a reservoir eluded the monitoring program of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), residents voiced their complaints about the foul taste and smell of the area’s water supply.

“The phone was ringing off the hook with angry complaints,” said Betsy Reilley-Matthews, Ph.D., senior program manager of water quality assurance for the MWRA. The deluge of complaints triggered a top-to-bottom reassessment of the agency’s monitoring program and a review of potential solutions.

In evaluating solutions, Reilley-Matthews considered buoy-based monitors as well as several types of imaging instrumentation. Based on requirements such as thorough results and ease of use, the MWRA selected FlowCAM imaging and analysis system, made by Fluid Imaging Technologies of Yarmouth, Maine.

FlowCAM automatically captures high-resolution, full-color digital images of every particle and cell in a fluid. An onboard laser heightens the natural fluorescence of each algal cell, rather than merely photographing the sample at timed intervals. The automated system saves the images with their corresponding data sets for instant display and analysis.

Operated by a single technician, FlowCAM eliminates the time- and labor-intensive microscopy process previously used by the MWRA, along with manual cell counts and visual inspections. FlowCAM’s pattern-recognition software identifies and classifies algal species, automatically differentiating harmless cells from those that pose a threat to water supplies. “It [FlowCAM] essentially eliminates the chance for human error and accelerates the whole process,” Reilley-Matthews said. “Now we can do in minutes what used to take days and be more confident in the data when taking action.”

By detecting algae organisms before they escalate into troublesome algal blooms, the problem can be rectified by using less copper sulfate for the treatment process.

FlowCAM comes in a benchtop model for laboratory analysis of water samples and cells, as well as a portable model for testing samples at remote sites. All FlowCAM configurations can be customized to suit specific environments and applications. Interchangeable instrumentation, including pH, salinity and temperature, can be integrated into the system to support data collection requirements.

Yarmouth, Maine--based Fluid Imaging Technologies provided this case history. The company’s Web site includes a video of FlowCAM in action. Fluid Imaging Technologies, Yarmouth, Maine