Unlocking the potential of ‘smart’ water in responding to climate change

Sea-level rise is often thought of as a visually dramatic catastrophe, with eroded beaches, abandoned coastal roads, and flooded cities. But some of its impacts, such as the salinization of freshwater drinking supplies, are much more insidious, says assistant professor of city and regional planning Allison Lassiter. Rising seas push saltwater inland, even past the highest tide. Some of it will dissolve in freshwater and enter streams and groundwater.

Aerial view of a flooded Texas town.
Columbus, Texas, was one small town that experienced devastating floods from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Allison Lassiter’s research focuses on coastal communities from New Jersey to Texas. (Image: Weitzman News)

“As salt moves inland, how will that interact with the drinking water supplies for coastal cities?” Lassiter says. “And what will we do about it?”

Those are the questions Lassiter will explore through a new grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant, awarded through the NSF’s highly competitive Faculty Early Career Development program, is supporting research into “Equitable Adaptation to Drinking Water Salinization from Seawater Intrusion with Smart Water Portfolios.” Lassiter’s research includes a Weitzman studio that will integrate using smart-water technology in climate resilience planning.

The grant builds on research that Lassiter has done through PennPraxis with assistance from Design Fellows to analyze geographic areas that are particularly susceptible to salt intrusion in drinking water. That susceptibility is a result of sea-level rise and vulnerability to salinization, including areas with a single drinking-water intake, heavily indebted water agencies, agencies with a small number of ratepayers, or isolated areas where collaboration with other jurisdictions is a challenge.

Besides being unpleasant to drink, salinized water can harm vulnerable populations, including people with hypertension and pregnant women, Lassiter says. More immediately, it can corrode pipes that aren’t equipped to handle salty water, potentially contaminating water further with heavy metals. Exposure to salinity also reduces infrastructure lifespans, adding to maintenance and replacement costs. Lassiter hopes the research can help small water authorities understand how to improve infrastructure using smart technology.

Read more at Weitzman News.