Bolstering the post-wildfire recovery pipeline
CSE professor helping to develop a water-pollution sensor system
Every year, wildfires burn their way across the western United States. The 2020 wildfire season was one of the worst on record, damaging infrastructure and causing thousands to evacuate their homes. But in addition to destruction, a lesser-known effect of these fires is water contamination, partly caused by the leaching of chemicals from heated pipes and portions of water distribution systems into communities’ water supplies.
College of Science and Engineering associate professor Lauren Linderman is part of a multidisciplinary team that aims to address this issue. The researchers are investigating wildland-urban interface (WUI) regions, which are communities where the built environment borders wildfire-prone areas. They plan to eventually implement a sensor system that can identify areas most at risk for water contamination post-wildfire.
“We’re not actually looking at how to prevent wildfires, but more how to manage and assist after a wildfire,” explained Linderman, a faculty member in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering.
“How can we identify water contamination more efficiently so [communities] would know where to look and repair things after the event?” She asked.
The team is made up of researchers from Oregon State University, University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Minnesota, working on funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Four out of the five investigators on the project are women, a fact Linderman likes to emphasize.
“It’s really cool to me to be on these calls where there are more women than men,” she said.
Trouble in Paradise
Linderman was recruited by Erica Fischer, an assistant professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University, because of Linderman’s past work using sensors to evaluate the resilience of structures. Fischer had noticed that after the 2017 wildfire in Santa Rosa and 2018 wildfire in Paradise, Calif., access to clean water was one of the largest obstacles to community recovery. So, their team developed a multi-prong approach to identify water quality issues after future wildfires.
For Linderman, this project has been a learning experience, as many people don’t realize the impact of water quality on wildfire recovery.
“We often don’t think of infrastructure that we use every day, especially if it’s not visible,” she said.
“But, this has a really big impact on quality of life," Linderman said. "Especially after an event, if you can’t use water at a hospital or a school or out of your own tap for almost a year, that can really slow down rebuilding of your community.”
Linderman and CSE civil engineering graduate student Bekka McCoy are developing sensors to monitor temperature distribution across water pipelines. If the pipes reach a high enough temperature to contaminate the water supply in certain areas, communities could direct relief efforts accordingly.
“The idea is that we’re directing efforts of what pipe regions to look at first to help mitigate the contamination,” Linderman explained. “So rather than having to dig up a whole pipe network and test everywhere, these areas would be where you would start repairing the system. Or, they might be areas you want to harden if you look at it in a predictive sense.”
Lighting a fire
Water pipelines in the western United States are typically made of flexible plastic, which is ideal for weathering earthquakes, Linderman said. However, using plastic then makes them susceptible to contamination after wildfires.
Before the researchers can implement their plan, they must first determine how and if sensors can help. To do this, they plan to build their own contained infrastructure and underground pipe network—and set it ablaze.
Simulating an actual wildfire will allow the researchers to test the water quality themselves, and the modeling efforts will further help them tailor the sensors to different environments.
“Part of this is understanding the key features that affect pipeline contamination,” Linderman said.
“It’s not clear exactly what temperatures you need to reach for this to be an issue because they’re not typically rated for that type of environment,” she explained.
The researchers are also doing modeling to understand how water flows throughout the networks and consulting stakeholders in California communities for on-the-ground input. They plan to compile all of this information, along with data collected through satellite imagery, to develop a web-based tool that can help municipalities locate potential sources of contamination.
Story by Olivia Hultgren
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