Poly sodium acrylate (PSA)-coated Magnetic Nanoparticles (PSA-MNPs) were synthesized as smart osmotic draw agent (SMDA) for water desalination by forward osmosis (FO) process. The PSA-coated MNPs demonstrated significantly higher osmotic pressure (~ 30 fold) as well as high FO water flux (~ 2–3 fold) when compared to their polymer (polyelectrolyte) counterpart, even at a very low concentration of ~ 0.13 wt.% in the draw solution. The PSA polymer chain conformation – coiled to extended – demonstrates a significant impact on the availability of the polymer hydrophilic groups in solution which is the driving force to attain higher osmotic pressure and water flux. When an optimum concentration of the polymer was anchored to a NP surface, the polymer chains assume an extended open conformation making the functional hydrophilic groups available to attract water molecules. This in turn boosts the osmotic pressure and FO water flux of the PSA-MNP draw agents. The low concentration of the PSA-MNP osmotic agent and the associated high water flux enhances the cost-effectiveness of our proposed SMDA system. In addition, easier magnetic separation and regeneration of the SMDA also improves its usability making it efficient, cost-effective and environment-friendly.