Deep in northern Delaware marshes, dangerous metals and pollutants such as arsenic float securely deep in layers of mud, far from harming thousands of nearby neighbors.
But when sea levels rise in coming decades and saltwater reaches those toxic tombs, could all of that hidden arsenic find its way into Delaware’s drinking water supplies?
That’s an excellent question, and one that Delaware native and scientist Matt Fischel wants to answer.
“We don’t want these contaminants to be in our drinking water,” said Fischel, a graduate student at the University of Delaware. “By understanding what could be happening with future sea level rise, we can sort of manage the risks and try to prevent arsenic and other contaminants from being released into the environment.”
Potential water-related crises like the one above are not unique to Delaware, and the First State’s higher education facilities are taking advantage of their in-house researchers and students to launch a slew of state- and federally funded research projects.
Project WiCCED, which stands for “Water in the Changing Coastal Environment of Delaware,” received $19 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. That grant is from the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.
The 2018 money starts a new five-year track of research and projects mainly focused on the St. Jones River, Murderkill River and Inland Bays watersheds. This is the fourth such grant for research projects in Delaware since 2003.
Scientists and researchers from the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Wesley College and Delaware Technical Community College will work together with their students to take a closer look at challenges facing the water supplies that residents, businesses, farmers and wildlife rely on for survival.
“It’s a huge project,” said Messer, Project WiCCED’s principal investigator. “There really is no start or stop to a wicked problem. When do you stop caring about water quality? Never.”
But it’s not just about identifying and understanding the problems, Messer said. It’s also about the solutions.
“To want to improve that water condition is a very natural desire and something that crosses political boundaries,” he said. “We need good science behind it to figure out how to get to a better situation.”
Project WiCCED may build a foundation of science to support policy or legislative decisions to protect water resources from human pollution and the impacts of climate change. It’s also an opportunity for students to do something meaningful with their studies, said Malcolm D’Souza, Wesley College’s dean of interdisciplinary/collaborative sponsored research.
“We’re changing lives,” the chemistry professor said. “These are kids who would never have a chance without the support of federal grants like EPSCoR.”
D’Souza said about 60 percent of Wesley students come from under-represented backgrounds, and working on a collaborative project like this is a unique opportunity for these students to succeed.
“We are going to help quite a significant population that really needs help,” he said. Participation in Project WiCCED includes a variety of disciplines from social sciences to big data.
The research will also look at:
- The Inland Bays’ new shellfish aquaculture program’s impact on water quality.
- How saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels impacts nutrient pollution in groundwater that people use for drinking water.
- How much people would be willing to pay for clean water-related projects.
- Whether water plants are prepared for terrorist attacks, and dozens of other water-related topics and projects.
“Wicked problems are ones that are often defined as something that doesn’t have a simple solution,” Messer said. “And it’s not like we’re going to go from bad water quality to perfect water quality. It’s going to be incremental. We have to make small steps that add up over time and that’s a real challenge.”