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Using heat to trace groundwater pollution

Cutting-edge technology used in research

Apr 14, 2011 — Article by: Jim Reilly

water samples

Laura Lautz, assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, samples pore water from the streambed around a restoration structure with graduate students Ken Hubbard (left) and Lisa Kurian (center).

Laura Lautz, a hydrologist and assistant professor of Earth Sciences in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, uses cutting-edge technology to gather data on how waste bed effluent and other contaminants move back and forth between subsurface groundwater and streams.

By laying fiber optic cable—as much as a kilometer in length—along a stream channel, Lautz and her team can instantaneously measure small but significant temperature changes to pinpoint sources of groundwater inflow and potential pollution. That’s the applied aspect of the research. But the National Science Foundation (NSF) put up more than $500,000 to fund her work using heat as a tracer for ground and surface water interaction because it is solid, basic science with many potential applications. The technique is so new only a few research groups in the country are currently using it.

“I hesitate to say it’s revolutionary, but people are really excited about it,” Lautz says. She is currently studying two sites: Ninemile Creek, near Syracuse, N.Y., where the creek flows through Honeywell property and is impacted by the former Allied Chemical waste beds on its way to Onondaga Lake; and Red Canyon Creek in Wyoming, which flows through property and a cattle ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Ninemile Creek is also the site for a second $500,000 NSF-funded project looking at how boulder mini-dams built to control stream bank erosion affect stream flow and ecology. The dams are used in Catskill watersheds to control erosion and sediment load to New York City’s drinking water.

Lautz and Martin Briggs, a PhD candidate in her research group, have co-authored a paper to appear in the journal Hydrological Processes comparing the results from fiber optic temperature sensing to more traditional methods of evaluating groundwater inflow to streams. Lautz and her group have also presented results to the European Geosciences Union, the American Geophysical Union and other national conferences.

“These are two projects where there’s national support for the basic science, but we’ve been able to find sites and applications locally that I think are really relevant,” Lautz says. “Both projects are important in helping us to better understand the dynamics of water pollution through the interaction of groundwater and surface-water systems.”

Lautz’s work is part of a broader Clean Water Initiative at Syracuse University that seeks to advance critical research on water resources, quality, infrastructure, and public policy locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.   

The restoration project was completed by the Nature Conservancy of Wyoming at Red Canyon Ranch.                                         

Contact Information

Judy Holmes