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Patterson, Fernandez, & Helmuth Awarded $300K NSF Grant

July 24, 2017

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a $300K, three-year research grant to Northeastern University to develop best practices for tide gate operations in coastal marshes. Professor Mark Patterson, College of Science (COS) interdisciplinary with civil and environmental engineering (CEE), is leading the project with Assistant Professor Loretta A. Fernandez, CEE/COS, and Brian Helmuth, affiliated faculty, CEE.

“Wetlands are critical to the protection of coastal infrastructure,” says Patterson. “Our research will establish engineering best practices to help communities effectively manage tide gate operations and reduce the risk of storm surges and fire while protecting ecosystem health.”

Under the NSF grant, the Northeastern team will work with local communities to investigate three diverse salt marsh environments in Massachusetts: a large urban coastal marsh, the Rumney Marsh; a smaller urban marsh in Marshfield that is used recreationally; and a “pristine” marsh in Plum Island that will serve as a control site.

Based on its data gathering and modeling—along with input collected in workshops with state and federal stakeholders—the team will develop decision support tools for operators, including a smartphone app to provide guidance on when and how much to open tide gates under various scenarios, and a companion website to serve as a resource for managers, the public and K-12 school programs. Because the marshes selected for the study are different in size and behavior, the decision support tools will be suitable for use in a variety of locations across the country.

Addressing issues of environmental sustainability

Co-principal investigator Fernandez will look at the effects of tide gates on chemical pollutants in salt marshes. “Industrial toxins now present in almost all aquatic environments can accumulate and stick to the sediment moving in and out of the marsh, which has an impact on both plant life and fish species—and can potentially affect people when they consume the fish,” explains Fernandez.

Using engineering tools known as “passive samplers” will allow for measuring low concentrations of these toxins in the environment, according to Fernandez. “The technology enables us to collect more data than we could in the past using the same amount of time and effort. We’ll be able to learn more, for example, about how tide gate operation affects the transport of toxic chemicals in salt marshes and predict how bioavailable chemicals are to invertebrates and fish.”

The collected data will be fed into the smartphone app developed for operators to help manage both nutrient and toxin transport—and ultimately decisions to open or close tide gates.

“Our research addresses critical issues of environmental sustainability,” says Patterson, “where engineering intersects with making decisions about the environment, and this project is a perfect example of that [intersection].”

Abstract Source: NSF

Tide gates are valves that are designed to protect life and property but often negatively affect wetlands. This research aims to develop best practices for their operation to maximize protection of people and ecosystem health. In the US, thousands of tide gates are maintained and operated by municipalities and conservation boards. How tide gates are operated affects risks of flooding and fire, and wetlands health, in competing ways. This project will develop new decision support tools for tide gate management using coupled models of water exchange, sediment movement and pollutant loading based on the EPA model QUAL2K, and objective functions for ecosystem services, water quality, and flood and fire risk. By coupling measurements and modeling, this research will move tide gate design and management well beyond prior understanding.

Methodology includes advanced microbial sensors for nitrate, passive contaminant samplers for toxins, and autonomous sensors and vehicles. In cooperation with municipalities in Massachusetts, and a diverse range of stakeholders, tide gate function will be investigated in a large urban coastal marsh with a history of toxin exposure, a smaller urban marsh used recreationally, and a 'pristine' marsh. Decision support tools for tide gate operators will provide directed advice on when and how much to open tide gates under various scenarios, improving public safety and ecosystem health of critical wetlands. Two undergraduates working on 6 month co-ops, and a graduate student, will be trained. Online visualization of tide gate state, water chemistry, biota, and toxins at a dedicated web site will be used to educate managers, the public, and K12 programs. Workshops during years 2-3 will engage the user community during the development of the decision support tools. Public policy MS students will participate in capstone projects to investigate the overlap in regulations among federal, state and local entities to facilitate implementation of best practices, while Civil Engineering undergrads will be involved in required capstone projects and will look for opportunities for both groups to collaborate. This research potentially will increase the sustainability, resilience, and anti-fragility of coastal communities because existing tide gates will be better managed, reducing risk of fire and flooding (and toxin dispersal for some sites), while increasing ecosystem services like essential fish habitat and storm.