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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

Satellite-based estimations of river discharge into the Cartagena Bay, Caribbean Colombia: Capacity building to mitigate sources of upstream runoff and associated risks of pollution

PI: Juan D. Restrepo (, Universidad EAFIT
U.S. Partner: Robert Brakenridge, University of Colorado
Project Dates: October 2015 - September 2018

Project Overview

4-70 Q4 2016 RestrepoJuan Restrepo (Project PI, center) during the post
Dr. Restrepo (center) during the poster session at AGU Fall 2016 with U.S. partners Albert Kettner (left), Associate Director of the Darmouth Flood Observatory-UC and Professor James Syvitski, Director of the CSDMS at University of Colorado

The city of Cartagena and its bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have a limited capacity for water resource management, as evident in the degradation of coastal water quality. The greatest source of pollution to the bay and the adjacent Rosario Islands National Marine Park is the Dique Canal, which drains 7% of the country’s largest river, the Magdalena. During the last six decades, coastal fisheries and ecosystems (sea grasses and coral reefs, for example) have almost disappeared, and Cartagena Bay is considered one of the Caribbean Region´s “hot spots” of pollution due to human-induced stressors impacting water quality and ecosystems services. Colombia and its national public environmental institutions have not previously used near real-time satellite observing systems, but this PEER project is aimed at generating near real-time satellite river data for the region by deriving time series of streamflow and flooding extent data. The main goals include (1) estimating river discharge from the Dique Canal-Magdalena River system into Cartagena Bay by applying satellite-derived measurements; (2) relating the constructed river flow series since 1998 to identify climate variability and human impacts for the Magdalena River basin; (3) making satellite-based data available as GIS files so they can be incorporated into end-user decision-support systems; and (4) developing capacity building for implementing satellite-based river freshwater estimations in environmental decision making in Cartagena Bay.

Findings on Cartagena Bay’s pollution and its current inadequacy for recreational use and fish consumption are widely known within the scientific community. In addition, lack of reliable data on freshwater discharge flowing into the bay has limited detailed modeling and applied science on how river fluxes impact physical and chemical characteristics of coastal waters. The ambiguity of the problem means that mitigation strategies are lacking. This PEER project team aims to have a significant impact by generating a clearer and more precise foundation of knowledge on continental runoff fluxes and related marine pollution problems, which could thus inform the development of adaptive strategies at both the community and political level. The planned collaboration between the Dartmouth Flood Observatory at the University of Colorado and EAFIT University-Colombia, the latter with its current project in the region, BASIC-Cartagena (Basin Sea Interaction with Communities), will serve as a joint effort in strengthening the capacity of regional stakeholders to integrate geospatial and satellite products into development and decision making, with the final goal of improving environmental management for Cartagena Bay.

Summary of Recent Activities

Major activities during October –December 2017 include:

(1) Satellite signal processing for new sites in the Barbacoas lagoon and its stream connection with the Magdalena River. Nine new sites for satellite signal processing were already processed by Darmouth Flood Observatory-DFO system. By using River Watch version 3 system of the DFO at nine selected measurement sites on the Magdalena floodplains, the research team constructed a rating curve to transform microwave signal from TRMM, AMSR-E, AMRS-2, and GPM satellites into river discharge. These rating curves are based on numerical discharge estimates from a global Water Balance Model (WBM). The results are displayed in the site map at

(2) During October 30 - November 3, 2018, a second field trip was carried out in the Magdalena River to recover the pressure sensor logger in the Barbacoas lagoon system and to conduct other analyses of water discharge and suspended sediments. Two undergrad students, a research assistant in charge of the ADCP current meter, a professional photographer, who was making a visual report of the Barbacoas lagoon system, and the PI, professor Juan Restrepo, formed the team. The team was unable to recover the pressure sensor lost due to a strong flood in May 2017. To remedy this unexpected situation, the team obtained water level measurements at the nearest gauging station from the Magdalena River authority, CORMAGDALENA, data from 1974 until 2016. These data will be used for making analysis of the relationship between Magdalena water level and lagoon connectivity. 

4-70 Oct30 Nov3 field trip_Restrepo4-70 Oct30 Nov3 field trip_ _Measuring water discharge
October 30-November 3, 2017 field trip: team members in the boat and in the Barbacoas lagoon.  Measuring water discharge in the Magdalena River [Photos courtesy of Dr. Restrepo]

(3) Expanding the scientific network of river floods in South America continued. During November 26-December 5, 2017, together with the colleagues at DFO, Albert Kettner, the team visited professor Naziano Filizola at the Amazon Federal University in Manaus. The main goal during this visit was to present the DFO platform of measuring near real time water discharge and floods in rivers from satellite derived data to faculty, students and scientists of the Brazilian Geological Survey. The main activities during this trip included: 

a. Two days’ workshop with students and faculty at the Federal University of Amazonas. The scientists working on the Amazon River presented the results and advances about the water discharge and sediment load programs  on in the Amazon River;

b. Albert Kettner of DFO and PI Juan Restrepo made presentations of the DFO platform of measuring water discharge and floods from satellite derived data and its application in the Magdalena River.

c. Daily field trips were conducted in the Negro and Amazon Rivers with faculty and students from the Amazon Federal University and research assistants from the Brazilian Geological Survey. During these five field trips around Manaus which were conducted on a ship of the Brazilian Geological Survey, the team learned how these institutions measure water discharge in large rivers and discussed ways of relating these measurements with satellite-derived data from DFO.

4-70 Oct30 Nov3 field trip_Amazon and Negro rivers4-70 Oct30 Nov3 _ team members during daily field trips in the Amazon
Team members during daily field trips in the Amazon and Negro Rivers [Photos courtesy of Dr. Restrepo] 

(4) A meeting to present the results to  the Director of the Magdalena River Authority, CORMAGDALENA, took place in Bogotá, Colombia, on December 11, 2017. The team presented to the CORMAGDALENA Director and its technical team the PEER project and the DFO platform already developed in the Magdalena River for obtaining satellite derived water discharge in near real time. One of the main outcomes of this meeting is the decision of CORMAGDALENA to incorporate this platform as a tool of flood risk analysis along the river. Also, CORMAGDALENA agreed on participating in the upcoming meeting to be held at EAFIT in Medellín, a supplemental activity consisting in convening a workshop about disseminating water related information targeted to a select group of policymakers, decision makers, end users, and stakeholders from Colombia and Latin America.

Challenges. The ongoing phase of the project is focused on developing an understanding of floodplain connectivity in the Magdalena River. Due to the loss of the pressure sensor, the DFO satellite signal data already processed in the project, will be analyzed and compared with the water level data obtained from the gauging station near the Barbacoas lagoon. This information will allow the team to generate a correlation model between the areas of floodplain inundation versus water level. This model will allow them to reconstruct the history of fluvial connectivity in the Barbacoas lagoon. The results obtained at this site for the first time will develop a model applying satellite time series of streamflow and flood extent data to understand the hydrologic mechanisms of floodplain connectivity.

Upcoming activities during the upcoming three months:

(1) Satellite signal analysis for the nine new sites in the Barbacoas lagoon and its stream connection with the Magdalena River.

(2) Calibration between satellite signal and measured river discharge at ground gauging stations at nearby location.

(3) An undergrad student will visit DFO-University of Colorado during April 8 - 21, 2018 to conduct research related to the above mentioned activities.

(4) A workshop entitled "Introduction to Satellite Based Discharge Stations and Flood Monitoring Systems" will take place at EAFIT University, Medellín, Colombia during March 21-22, 2018. The workshop is intended for policymakers, decision makers, end users, and stakeholders from Colombia and Latin America, will be organized and is estimated to take place during March 2018 in Colombia, as a joint effort of the supported DFO-EAFIT PEER project and the project of the Dartmouth Flood Observatory and the GeoSUR Program, “Mapping of Flood Events and Estimation of River Flow for Latin America and the Caribbean”.  By joining both projects’ efforts, the convening workshop seeks to discuss with participants how to better understand and use the DFO platform, as well as ingest some of the DFO data directly into their local GIS and decision making analyses. The goals of the workshop will be to: (1) Demonstrate what water related satellite derived data is available; (2) Seek experience feedback of the DFO and GeoSUR portals; (3) Present data applications in terms of water discharge variability, flood risk assessments, and river floodplain ecological connectivity; (4) Ingest some of the DFO data directly into participants local GIS; (5) Get feedback from end users on what additional water related data participants would need in applied science and policy making or what could be modified such that it fits the need better for the end user; (6) Share the results and data platforms of both projects with students and scientists working on water-related issues.    

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