Water in the Changing Coastal Environment of Delaware



Delaware’s impaired watersheds. Study watersheds are outlined in black. From north to south: St. Jones River, Murderkill River, and Inland Bays Watersheds. Star indicates Dover.


Many coastal regions of the world have entered a critical period when multiple pressures threaten water security, defined as the capacity of society to safeguard adequate, sustainable quantities of high-quality water. In Delaware, threats to water security relate primarily to water quality rather than quantity and arise largely due to human behavior-whether from excess nutrients from agriculture and households, increased salinity due to groundwater pumping and sea-level rise, or degradation of ecological systems from an expanding human footprint. Thus, improving water security is fundamentally about making better decisions, based on clear scientific understanding, reliable methods and models for predicting future outcomes, improved technologies, and evidence-based policies and programs that cost-effectively invoke positive behavioral change. This project aims to assess major threats to Delaware’s water quality and develop viable technological and policy solutions for meeting the challenges imposed by them. Threats to water security negatively affect human health, ecosystem function, and critical economic drivers in Delaware, including agriculture and tourism. Addressing these concerns is a need highlighted in Delaware’s Science and Technology Plan and in Governor John Carney’s priorities. In response to these needs, the partner institutions — the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College, and Wesley College — propose a jurisdictional network of people, institutions, data, and technologies directed at enhancing water security for human, economic, and ecosystem health. Our educational and training mission will ensure that diverse students are engaged in all aspects of the project in order to develop a workforce capable of addressing water security challenges in Delaware and around the world well into the future.

This collaboration will transform our capacity to engage in cutting-edge research to advance scientific understanding of threats to Delaware’s water security and develop groundbreaking solutions. The project integrates engineering, natural, and social sciences, including the application of advanced data analytics, the development and deployment of new sensor technologies, and the use of new techniques and models to predict the often-coupled behavior of water resources and people. The proposed studies will expand knowledge of how competing water uses and sea-level rise exacerbate salinization of freshwater resources; how excess nutrients and carbon are transported and cycled across the landscape under changing human and hydrologic conditions; and how ecosystems respond to, mitigate, or intensify these water quality threats. This project will also support transformative solutions, such as the design and fabrication of low-cost, energy-efficient technologies to remove excess nitrate and ammonium from surface and groundwater. Behavioral insights from field experiments and randomized controlled trials will provide solid evidence on which to base public policy and programs, thereby transforming our ability to address the true threat to water quality-human behavior. The project also builds three infrastructure cores-sensor technology, the microbiome, and data systems and analytics-that will add critical research capacity to support the project and other investigators, educators, and stakeholders statewide.



The activities of this proposal are specific to Delaware but have broad applications in other coastal areas in the U.S. and around the world. Water security is a universal, overarching concern and a major determinant of human health, political stability, and overall quality of life. Governments, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations have numerous unmet needs associated with analyzing, forecasting, and planning near-term and longer-term responses to water security challenges. The scientific insights, technological solutions, and societal guidance created by this project will be communicated to key stakeholders and the public. New partnerships in areas such as advanced data analytics and the emerging threat of environmental cybersecurity will expand the network’s reach and impact. In addition, education and training opportunities throughout the project will help prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, and leaders to meet future challenges, contribute to economic growth in the state and the nation, and improve environmental health.

Acknowledging EPSCoR Support

The National Science Foundation (NSF) requires grantees to acknowledge EPSCoR support in every publication (including webpages) of any material based on or developed under this grant.

To acknowledge EPSCoR support under the RII-4 grant, which began in October 2018, please use this text: “This publication (or program) was made possible by the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Grant No. 1757353  and the State of Delaware.”

To acknowledge EPSCoR support under the RII-3 grant, which began in June 2013, please use this text: “This publication (or program) was made possible by the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Grant No. IIA-1301765  and the State of Delaware.”

EPSCoR funding awardees are responsible for assuring that every publication of material (including webpages) based on or developed under this award, except scientific articles or papers appearing in scientific, technical or professional journals, contains the following disclaimer: “Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.”

NSF support must also be orally acknowledged during all news media interviews, including popular media, such as radio, television, and news magazines.

For more information, see the NSF Grant Policy Manual.