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Hathaway Explores Feasibility of Smart Stormwater Systems

Six tall black columns with faucets and other hardware at the bottom.


  • Smart stormwater infrastructure has the potential to give cities more control against catastrophic flooding.
  • Assistant Professor Jon Hathaway is testing different watershed designs.
  • New technology for stormwater infrastructure could allow cities to manage weather-related disasters in the face of climate change.

Assistant Professor Jon Hathaway is now leading the first phase of a collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation to identify whether adding technological capabilities to stormwater systems will help cities control flooding and adapt to changing climate.

Hathaway, who studies water resources engineering, is an expert in stormwater systems—specifically designed capabilities based on the geography and topography of cities that help manage flooding.

Whereas most cities have some physical form of storm management in place, the sort of “crown jewel” of managing runoff would be a combination of current technology and “smart” systems that could adjust and respond as needed during storms.


Static infrastructure is designed to do one thing, which also means it’s not adaptable and can’t change to deal with large storms.”

—Jon Hathaway

Although only a few cities in the US are currently testing these systems, more are gaining interest, which, in turn, increases the need to make them safe and reliable.

Hathaway cited security as a key issue to worry about, but also stressed the need to build in redundancies so that failure by one part of the smart system won’t bring down the entire network.

To address concerns, Hathaway has developed research at the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Farm.

plants grow out of the top of six tall, black columns.There, he has 20 bioretention columns—barrel-like structures with different controls to test four different treatment designs, both static and under active control—in a greenhouse. The columns are equipped with water level and soil moisture sensors to better understand how they are working, leading to better designs.

Hathaway and his graduate student researchers are using precipitation predictions and data from NOAA for a historical two-month period to dictate the amount of water each column receives during a simulated rain event and how the actively controlled columns should prepare for the storm.

The first treatment is based on conventional drainage, where the water enters the system, filters through soil, and exits at the bottom.

The second treatment has an internal water storage zone that allows water to pool in the bottom and create a unique submerged environment.

In the third scenario, the researchers are actively controlling when water is drained prior to a simulated rain event in much the same way that TVA releases water from its reservoirs in advance of major storms.

The fourth treatment is active control based on soil moisture. By offering more control of the soil moisture levels in bioretention areas, Hathaway hopes to establish a more stable microbial community in the soil, which may improve water quality treatment.

All the columns are designed to be controlled remotely, with a web portal allowing the team to view changes to the columns in real time. The team hopes to understand how active control affects water movement within the column as well as water quality leaving the columns.

Once the first project phase is complete, the University of Virginia will begin scaling the lab results to a full-sized bioretention area. Later, researchers at the University of Michigan will use computer modeling to understand how these individual practices can be controlled in concert to achieve watershed-scale benefits.

Élan Young: