Congratulations on winning the NSF Engineering Research Center grant! Please give our readers an overview of the key goals and priorities of the ReNUWIt Program.
Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt) is a collaboration among Stanford, UC Berkeley, the Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State, supported by the National Science Foundation. We seek a combination of fundamental, test-bed and systems-level research so that the outcomes of discoveries can be implemented in practice. Our initial funding stream is five years, and if we do a good job with our third-year review next May we should be in business for 10 years. This is almost a lifetime in terms of funding from NSF.
Ours is the only NSF Engineering Research Center specifically focused on water. The others are in areas such as power, nanotechnologies, and biomedical engineering.
A major goal of our center is to look at urban water infrastructure in a completely new way, to reinvent our systems so that they are more resilient and reliable, and save money and water. In our part of the country and other places, we are at the limit for what we can import to meet our urban water needs. Also, population increases continue to put stress on our water systems. We have climate change issues that suggest there will be less runoff, and certainly a different form of precipitation. We also recognize that we need to provide water for ecosystem services.
These issues present a challenge to us, but they also present opportunities.
The way we are organizing our center is to focus on three broad areas. One is efficient engineered systems and the second is natural water infrastructure systems. Both of those are in areas where we seek improvements in the way we use, manage and reuse water, embracing both engineered systems and natural process systems. It's also important that we pay attention to how new technology fits within existing systems. And thus, the third area is urban systems integration, which looks at how innovations scale-up, how they conserve resources, how to finance such systems, and how it works with city planning.
What is on the ERC research agenda for 2013?
We are looking to expand on-the-ground projects with utilities. These would be demonstration projects of sufficient scale outside the lab where we can see whether an idea will work and gain traction. We've been working on a project with the Sonoma County Water Agency in which we can look at their water supply plans for the future. Through community meetings, the SCWA has identified two priorities: flood management and stormwater capture for recharge. The two work together. We are launching a project with the SCWA to see how urban and regional planning can identify places that might actually work with respect to current land use and gain community acceptance. We also are looking at stormwater capture and treatment to remove nutrients and ReNUWIt will receive funding from the EPA to complement the support from SCWA.
In the San Fernando Valley, we are looking at places where we can do stormwater capture and recharge groundwater for urban water supplies. Our initial work emphasizes innovative geomedia to remove trace contaminants. There are sizeable areas within the San Fernando Valley and Tujunga Wash with usable land – old quarries and such – that could capture stormwater and create a nice urban feature with wetlands and, with additional steps, treat the water prior to recharge.
Another project is with the Orange County Water District where we are partnering on the construction of a unit process wetland. At the Prado Wetlands, OCWD is converting a piece of land to demonstrate the concept of managed unit processes for wetlands that would emphasize photo-chemistry in one cell and different plants and microbiology in other cells. These cells are essentially full-size, 100 feet wide and 800 feet long. Other projects with utilities and agencies are under way in Colorado and New Mexico.
How can public agencies partner with the ERC in this research agenda?
The way a new partner comes in is by talking to Christian Nilsen, our Research and Industrial Liaison Officer. We don't have the capacity for too many one-off projects, so we look for projects that may involve several investigators and have the potential to change business as usual. In that way, we can bring together several disciplines in our center to focus on an important problem. We're open to all ideas, but it has to be a partnership.
One example is a project to demonstrate how to remove ammonia from wastewater in a way that saves energy and converts the ammonia into nitrous oxide, which can be blended with digester gas to enhance energy recovery from a treatment plant. This becomes important if treatment plants in the future use complete anaerobic processes that produce a lot of ammonia. We have demonstrated this treatment in the lab, and we are working with three utilities (East Bay Municipal Utility District, Delta Diablo Sanitation District, and South Bayside System Authority) to do a distributed lab approach. It's not a pilot plant, but a more mobile lab version that could run at those plants. If we can demonstrate performance at that scale, then we can ask other utilities and companies to join us and build larger test-bed facilities at Stanford for a Resource Recovery Research Center to test this and other innovative technologies.
With your international perspective on water resources and environmental restoration, what are the missed opportunities in the United States? What can we learn from the Swiss, the Australians and Singapore, all of whom have partnered with the ERC?
With our colleagues in Switzerland and Australia, we just published a feature article in Environmental Science and Technology on a changing framework for urban water systems. With the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) we are looking at how new technology diffuses. For an idea like satellite treatment systems, how does that gain traction? There's a group at Eawag that looks at the social science aspects on how change occurs and how to track it. We can learn a lot from that group. They also have done work on decentralized systems, from urine separation technologies to buildings that are almost off the grid. With the Australians, the opportunities are in technologies and systems planning to deal with severe drought. We've had ongoing discussions with the University of New South Wales and Monash University, which have done a good job of working with cities and helping them plan for the future. We can learn from that process. As engineers we typically don't involve city planners but that's changing in ReNUWIt, and the Australia experience shows some success in overcoming jurisdictional fragmentation.
What are the most significant obstacles to introducing new technologies/approaches to the U.S. market?
From my perspective, it is getting support for a pilot demonstration and for systems-level analysis. If you can demonstrate a project at a pilot-scale system then you can learn how it works, what the reliability is, and what unintended consequences might come. But it requires a big step up for a utility or engineering company to invest in a demonstration system. These demonstration projects have to be very well informed and thought out. Once you see something working and it looks like it provides clear benefits, many systems-level questions will result. These questions need to be addressed not at the end, but in parallel with pilot studies to address head-on issues of integration and institutions. How would you replicate it? How many of these systems does it take to make a difference? Will planners and departments of public health accept it? How are such systems financed and what vulnerabilities might result?
What needs to change to apply triple bottom line problem solving?
In the movie "Field of Dreams," the idea was that if you built a baseball diamond in a cornfield then the old baseball players would come. We've taken that approach in the past with natural systems as part of our urban water infrastructure. When we build a wetland, we think the right microorganisms, plants and flow regime will come. Our experience is that they don't really work as designed. We don't know how to optimize the design of such systems, be it wetland treatment systems or stormwater capture treatment and infiltration systems. The hope is that once they're built they will work, a little bit like that field of dreams. On the natural system side there's a better way to think about separating these systems. When you take a unit process approach, you try to optimize for certain features so that you're engineering a system. You also know how to better manage it.
Another component of natural systems is the opportunities for water reuse to benefit ecosystems. A good example of this was in Pacifica along the California coast. About 10 years ago they were looking at moving their wastewater treatment plant to a different location. The question that came up was whether to continue using the ocean outfall or take the wastewater and use it to rehabilitate a stream. The business case was, "What's the avoided cost of not doing the outfall?" and "If we do the inland discharge and create habitat, what will it cost?" The cost of this was less than maintaining the outfall, so they put in an inland discharge, which is very uncommon for a plant on the coast. Today it's a great feature that improves the urban aesthetics, provides habitat for threatened species, and provides recreation for people. But none of that was valued at the time of the decision. It was all about cost of not maintaining the outfall. The challenge is how to monetize benefits that aren't easily monetized. Now because Pacifica has about 10 years of experience we went back through the old records to see how much it really costs to operate this system, and help quantify non-monetized benefits. It's a unique data set.
Last year, you had an opportunity to provide a briefing to Congress on the water-energy nexus. Do they get it?
The audience was receptive and I think they do get it, but we must realize there isn't one solution to our water challenges. What works in the Front Range of Colorado may not work in southern Nevada or Southern California. You have to realize there are political and geographic realities in these places. The message I'd like to give is that regional collaboration can provide local benefits. For example, groundwater storage in one spot could provide communitywide benefits, as we may see in the Monterey Peninsula. In the past we've asked "What works for me?" Now we have to ask "What works for us?" That's where the opportunities are – in working together and realizing solutions that are acceptable are ones with shared benefits and shared outcomes.
Students graduating from your program at Stanford have career options in academia, public agencies, NGOs and consulting. What career advice do you offer your graduates?
If someone is questioning whether they really want to be an engineer, my advice is to finish your degree and later change disciplines if you want. Engineering opens up many opportunities. You can get a seat at the table and work on important problems because you have that technical expertise. Of course then you can go off and do lots of different things. You just don't know where your career will go.
What's next for you?
This Engineering Research Center is exhilarating. It's great to see ideas we had a few years ago come to life and it takes a lot of attention to keep the parts moving. We have a large education and outreach program. So there's always something to do.