Urban Water Infrastructure

Center aims to design new water systems.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

The nation’s urban water systems are wearing out. To make matters worse, cities in the West, South and Southwest also are dealing with water scarcity.

“Our water infrastructure is at the end of its service life,” says Richard Luthy, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “Something has to be done. The technology we have today is mid-20th Century at best. When most of these systems were built, construction costs received the attention, while the energy to run the systems was secondary. Today, it’s reversed.”

Luthy directs the new Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure, which aims to design new water systems that will not only meet water needs, but consume fewer resources and improve the quality of aquatic ecosystems.

Center scientists will look for sustainable solutions to the deteriorating urban water infrastructure, whether focusing on water treatment systems, integrated natural water systems, and tools that take economic, environmental and social factors into consideration when making decisions about water. Researchers, for example, will explore better integration of natural systems as part of urban water infrastructure to improve water quality and storage, while enhancing the urban landscape.

“We now recognize the importance of saving some of the water for ecosystem services, and protecting endangered species,” Luthy says. “That didn’t loom large in 1970 and 1980, but it does today.” Moreover, “the goal is to use a better understanding of natural processes to improve water quality, habitats and the urban esthetic,” he adds.

Among other things, the scientists would like to design new water treatment systems that can utilize the energy produced in the water itself.

“There are ways to treat water so it becomes clean, and generates methane that can be used for heat, or to make electricity,” Luthy says. “You would be using materials already in the water. There are ways to use new engineering technologies in smaller systems that are energy positive, instead of energy negative - so you have energy positive water reclamation. Essentially you are running in a mode that generates energy rather than consumes it, and you can make electricity. What could be better?”

The center, based at Stanford University, has research partners at the Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico State University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers at the Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and the University of New South Wales in Australia also will contribute their expertise, in particular, a global perspective. Additionally, 22 industries--among them, multinational corporations, utilities and start-up companies--will join the center’s efforts by providing university students with first-hand entrepreneurship experience.

The National Science Foundation is funding the center with $18.5 million during the next five years.

Experts acknowledge the looming crisis, and recognize the opportunities available through new technology and innovation, which “should lead to reinvention,” Luthy says. “But there are a few speed bumps along the way. The technologies may be untested, there may be legal impediments, possibly public health risks, and we are dealing with a conservative industry.” As a result, “we need to listen and understand the viewpoint of utilities just as much as we do the engineering consultants.”

To be sure, the work of the center “will have an overlay of engineering,” he adds. “But people working on this also must be lawyers, city planners, resource economists, folks who are not engineers, but understand the importance of systems and institutions and how they need to be addressed.”

The center will sponsor both laboratory research as well as demonstration sites, including a wetland in Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County. The notion of using “managed natural systems” such as wetlands to improve water quality is not a new idea, “but hasn’t been widely adopted because you can’t make any predictions about how they will perform,” Luthy says.