Civil Engineering professors aim to improve water quality in small communities
Three UNL faculty, led by Civil Engineering Professor Bruce Dvorak, are part of the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS), a national project that hopes to bring up-to-date technology and safer water to America's small communities.
WINSSS, with a three-year, $4.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is headquartered at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, with associate centers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Texas at Austin.
At UNL, Dvorak will direct WINSSS operations and will work alongside Chittaranjan Ray, professor of Civil Engineering and director of the Nebraska Water Center, and Rebecca Lai, professor of Chemistry.
The project has particular relevance in Nebraska, where most of the public water systems serve fewer than 10,000 people and, thus, usually have small streams of revenue and small operations staffs. Many small systems, Dvorak said, also have rates of public health violations three times higher than those in bigger cities.
"A large system, like in Denver or Omaha, can hire consultants and researchers and develop new technologies," Dvorak said. "Small communities don't have that. And in Nebraska, given that not a lot of smaller communities are growing, there's not a lot of financial capacity.
"We're trying to develop markets and modify existing technologies to make them appropriate for small systems."
However, improving and updating small public water systems is not a simple task.
The EPA had not previously put a lot of funding or research into updating these systems, Dvorak said.
"Many of the technologies work for Lincoln or Grand Island but are not well-adapted for a small community. The assumption has been that what works for big communities is the priority, and that small communities should figure out how to do this. It hasn't been real effective," he said.
"The EPA wants researchers to start taking technologies – like off-the-shelf sensors and point-of-use devices – and adapt them for the unique situations of small water systems, so that entrepreneurs can start making them available for the actual systems."
Accomplishing that, Dvorak said, will also require overcoming political hurdles, which include getting the new technology approved separately by each of the 50 states. WINSSS is trying to find ways to get research and testing information to multiple state regulatory agencies with the hope that when one state approves the new product, others will follow suit.
"Legislators and congressional delegations are concerned about finding cost-effective solutions for supplying safe drinking water for these small communities," Dvorak said. "What we're trying to do is reduce the risk."
Even though the EPA grant only covers the next three years, Dvorak expects the work will continue longer.
"We're being given 3½ years to do the first three years' work, but I see this lasting at least 10," Dvorak said. "We're trying to not just have scientists and engineers develop innovation, but set up a framework where we can go back and forth with government agencies and communities to figure out what makes sense now and for the future."
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