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One of the missions of the National Marine Water Quality Laboratory (NMWQL), situated on the shores of Narragansett Bay, is to use the bay as a laboratory to develop techniques for determining the state of the marine environment through continuous surveillance. Narragansett Bay is well suited for such an effort because of its close proximity to the urban center of Providence and to the laboratory and because it has all the factors typical of estuarine environments in the Northeast. In addition, the monitoring system is of value to the laboratory because it supports its other missions relative to developing water quality standards and techniques for determining urban industrial site locations. This paper deals with the design of such a system. The first step of this design procedure is the careful definition of the mission of the system. The second step is a complete description of the dynamic geophysical environment under consideration. Consideration is next given to the tradeoffs possible between a system which accomplishes its mission by making a very large number of observations and a system which accomplishes its mission by making a small number of observations but with a great deal of sophisticated data analysis to predict the actual environmental conditions between stations. An ideal combination of hardware and software yields the minimum cost system to accomplish the mission. Consideration has also been given in the design to instrumentation and concurrent research needed.