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Re-inventing America's urban water infrastructure

The National Science Foundation has selected a multi-university team from Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State to implement an Engineering Research Center with the goal of re-inventing America's aging and inadequate water infrastructure. NSF will invest $18.5 million over five years with additional funds to follow.

BY ANDREW MYERS

America's cities face a looming water crisis, driven by climate change, growing population and a crumbling infrastructure. Recognizing the critical importance of this issue, the National Science Foundation has selected a partnership of four U.S. universities to form an Engineering Research Center (ERC) to address this challenge by developing new, sustainable ways to manage urban water. The initial grant is $18.5 million spread over five years, with additional millions to come in the subsequent five-year period following in-progress reviews.

Engineering Research Centers are interdisciplinary hubs established at U.S. universities. Researchers work in close partnership with industry to pursue strategic advances in complex engineered systems and technologies. The Urban Water ERC is led by Stanford University and includes researchers trained in environmental engineering, earth sciences, hydrology, ecology, urban studies, economics and law at Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State University.

Concerted effort, grand scale

"Urban water represents a monumental challenge for the United States and it deserves concerted research and thinking on the grandest scale," said project leader Richard Luthy, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. "We're clearing the slate. Nothing is being taken for granted. We'll be developing new strategies for replacing crumbling infrastructure, new technologies for water management and treatment, new ways to recover energy and water, and more – much of it yet to be determined."

One example: better integration of natural systems as part of urban water infrastructure to improve water quality and storage while simultaneously enhancing habitats and the urban landscape.

The partnership of these specific universities is as symbolic as it is pragmatic. The Urban Water ERC is based in the American West where the effects of shifting water resources will be felt most acutely, but also where much of the leading thinking on water challenges is taking place. At Stanford, for instance, the NSF support will leverage a program on "Water in the West," an interdepartmental effort to address urgent problems.

"These four universities form a powerful collaboration," Luthy added. "Each has its particular strengths; and each is working on problems related to how we use and reuse water and how we design and manage our urban water resources in the face of some daunting outlooks."

"Our various test platforms in California, Colorado and New Mexico allow us to try new ideas at realistic scale and in close collaboration with industry and practitioner partners," said Jörg Drewes, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines and director of research for the center. "This allows us to demonstrate new approaches and move promising innovations from university labs towards commercial reality."

"At this level of collaboration we can achieve much more than any one individual campus could alone," said Nirmala Khandan, a professor of civil engineering, co-investigator on the project and leader of the center's work at New Mexico State University.

Industry-academia collaboration

 To the mix of leading universities, the Urban Water Engineering Research Center will add the support of a number of industrial partners that will extend the reach of the ERC's programs and provide a critical real-world aspect to the center's work.

"The Engineering Research Center's multi-disciplinary approach can transform the way we manage our urban water systems in the 21st century for the betterment of both cities and the environment," said Mike Kavanaugh, a principal with Geosyntec Consultants in Oakland. His company provides specialized services in storm-water management, water-quality modeling and geotechnical services to municipal clients in the United States.

"We look forward to having an active role in the ERC's research to help put innovations into practice," added Megan Plumlee, a scientist with the Advanced Technologies Group at Kennedy/Jenks Consultants in San Francisco. Her company  works in recycled-water planning and design work.

Multi-faceted approach

The research of the Urban Water ERC will combine fundamental investigations and applied research in engineered systems, natural systems and urban water management.

"Working with partners in industry will transform the center's groundbreaking research into practical and sustainable solutions," Luthy said. "Achieving technical innovation and new ways of doing business requires the ERC team to tackle the full range of economic, policy and social factors at play in water resources decision-making and management."

As director of the ERC, Luthy will coordinate a myriad of projects on three different scales. There will be laboratory research and real-world "test beds" – demonstration sites including a wetland in Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County and proposed new facilities at Stanford. ERC scientists will also work on designing future water infrastructure in collaboration with municipal water management systems and institutions such as the city of Palo Alto and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

An additional mission of the Urban Water ERC is to inspire future engineers through extensive education programs at participating institutions. According to Luthy, this will yield a pipeline of well-prepared students of diverse backgrounds who are ready and eager to pursue water-related degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level.

The goal, ultimately, is a new cohort of leaders who will transform America's water infrastructure. This effort also includes important outreach programs aimed at students of all ages, from kindergartners through adults and with special outreach to under-represented children in Native American, Latino, Pacific Islander and African American communities.

"I, for one, am confident we can meet our water challenges," Luthy said. "And the establishment of this Engineering Research Center is a great first step to solving the biggest problems."

Andrew Myers is associate director of communications at the Stanford School of Engineering.

Media Contact

Andrew Myers, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245, admyers@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu