CSIRO and the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (SmartSat CRC) have partnered with industry and research partners to form the AquaWatch mission, aimed at developing a comprehensive national inland and coastal water quality information service.

The mission’s goal is to help safeguard freshwater and coastal resources and grow Australia’s space capability. AquaWatch combines data from innovative ground-based equipment and satellite remote sensing to monitor and forecast the presence of cyanobacteria in drinking and recreational water sources.

Hunter Water’s Grahamstown Reservoir near Newcastle is one of multiple sites participating in the national pilot program. Andy Olrich leads the Continuous Improvement and Innovation team, and James Van Der Helm is a water scientist with Science and Research at Hunter Water. Andy and James recently presented their technical paper on Hunter Water’s involvement in the mission at Ozwater’23 in Sydney.

Using pilot sites at Lake Hume, on the New South Wales and Victorian border, Lake Tuggeranong in the ACT, and the Grahamstown Reservoir, CSIRO aims to grow the program into a national integrated system that can provide holistic aquatic ecosystem information.

Hunter Water has partnered with CSIRO on a trial of the in-situ sensors, satellite remote sensing, and modelling to deliver real-time water quality information for Grahamstown reservoir and the Williams River.

“It’s really exciting that we are utilising our national space program to help drive better ways of managing water quality through our rivers and coastal water resources,” said Mr Olrich. “It’s cutting-edge space technology and water science coming together for the benefit of potentially millions of people here and around the world.”

According to Mr Van Der Helm, the mission is centred around monitoring for the presence of algae, which has a serious impact on water quality. “When conditions are favourable for algae to accumulate in the water at sufficient concentrations, the algae can release colours, as well as taste and odours, into the water,” said Mr Van Der Helm.

“The pigments change the reflectance signature of the water, so the instrumentation is actually looking at that change in reflectance, which is calibrated against blue-green algae, suspended solids and coloured dissolved organic matter.  “Using data and algorithms, we can monitor current algal conditions and forecast or predict the likelihood of an algal bloom occurring.”

Everyone needs and deserves access to clean, safe drinking water, and as we move toward an uncertain climate future, we need as many tools as possible to manage those resources.  “The system has potential to provide cost-effective water quality monitoring that can be deployed across the globe,” said Mr Van Der Helm.

“After we have finished the process of local calibration and validation, then we may no longer need to rely on the regular manual aspects of water quality monitoring and sampling and analysis of water samples.

“We can utilise both ground and satellite remote sensing technology and imagery to assess water quality and the likely risk of algal blooms occurring. So, it’s very, very exciting from that perspective, and has immediate local relevance as well as international relevance.”

Benefits across the network

Hunter Water provides water and wastewater services to almost 600,000 people in the lower Hunter region on the east coast of Australia. Some of the benefits the utility and its customers will see as a result of this mission include:

Reduced risk

Hazards and resources (people, vehicles, boats) associated with manual sampling of water in Grahamstown Reservoir will be reduced through application of this technology. James believes the technology will lead to fewer manual inspections for algal risk.

Improved resolution and visibility

Grahamstown Reservoir has a surface area of 28 square kilometres and Hunter Water performs weekly water quality monitoring, from three discrete points in the reservoir. Gaining real-time and complete visualisation of the site’s water quality is a great opportunity for Hunter Water.

Reduced exposure windows

Through real-time monitoring and forecasting, the mission aims to provide water resources managers and utilities with a tool for management of algal risk. A typical sampling, laboratory analysis and reporting of results can take about seven days. Initial trials indicate the potential to reduce the exposure windows (time from sample collection to operational controls) to about two days.

Expanded data capture

As of June 2023, the Grahamstown Reservoir pilot was in the calibration and validation of water quality with ground and satellite remote sensing data stage. Comparing baseline samples results with water quality historical data, modelling can then be applied.

CSIRO examines the reflectance signatures in the background, then correlates the reflectance signatures it sees with the raw water quality data provided. CSIRO applies modelling and algorithms to create the monitoring and forecasting tool. Soon, the program will have produced a reliable and statistically significant data set.

This September, project partners CSIRO and Hunter Water will add another device in the Williams River. Hunter Water pumps water from the Williams River into Grahamstown Reservoir. At the completion of the two-year trial, Hunter Water will keep the equipment and data where it will be integrated into existing monitoring and visualisation systems.

If you would like to know more about this trial, please contact Andy Olrich at or James Van Der Helm at You can also search “CSIRO AquaWatch” or head to

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