By Christina Burchette
In high school, I was cast as a jitterbug dancer in our school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Before the show, the cast and I practiced choreography in our school’s small dance studio. It took me a while to get the steps (hand-eye coordination was never one of my strong suits), but eventually I felt pretty confident in my abilities. That changed when we performed the dance for the first time on the auditorium stage—in front of the entire student body. The stage was three times as large as the dance studio. As the music started, the small and subtle steps we had practiced in the studio quickly turned into leaps and bounds across the stage. For that first performance we couldn’t keep time with the music, but we all stayed in unison! Clearly, dancing on the stage was much different than in the studio.
That’s why your practice environment should be as close as possible to the one in which you perform—that way, you’re better prepared for the real thing. This concept is also important for research, which is why EPA built the Water Security Test Bed (WSTB)—a full-sized replica of a drinking water distribution system at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The WSTB enables EPA to conduct real-world experiments regarding water security in the face of emergency situations (e.g., intentional or accidental contamination incidents) and aging infrastructure. The above-ground, 445 feet long pipe structure uses 30 year-old, eight-inch pipes and hydrants that were pulled from real municipal water systems to ensure that researchers are working with true-to-life conditions.
Researchers have performed water security tests before, but never on a model with true-to-life equipment and dimensions. Using this replica, researchers will use materials that mimic toxic materials in the water system and determine what kinds of effects they have on the water and infrastructure and how to most effectively and rapidly remove them. They will also perform tests that address potential cybersecurity threats and the effects of contamination on infrastructure and household appliances. This research will provide information to water utilities on how to prevent such events or, if they do happen, how to treat the problem in the fastest and most effective way possible.
It’s important for researchers to perform tests in conditions as close to real life as possible to account for actual conditions that may not be achievable in lab set ups—and they have already discovered that the tests they perform at the WSTB yield different results than pilot scale experiments. These results prove that a full-sized system will provide more accurate information on how to handle water utility emergencies, ensuring that those responding to the situation have better tools to work with.
Over the next few years, EPA and it collaborators plan to run various experiments to ensure that if disaster strikes our water infrastructure systems, we have the data and tools to protect our infrastructure and public health. EPA invites water sector researchers and other federal agencies to collaborate in ongoing research or initiate new areas of investigation at the WSTB.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Water Security Test Bed:
About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.