Safe and Sustainable Water

Winning Solutions for Nutrient Pollution

By Dustin Renwick

The partnership for the challenge includes: - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - U.S. Geological Survey - Tulane University - Everglades Foundation

The partnership for this challenge currently includes:
– White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
– U.S. Department of Agriculture
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
– U.S. Geological Survey
– Tulane University
– Everglades Foundation

Nutrient pollution, an excess of nitrogen or phosphorous, costs the country at least $2.2 billion annually. Excess nutrients reaching our waterways spark algae blooms that overpower otherwise healthy ecosystems. In turn, those blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species, and create negative impacts for water-based recreation and tourism.

Members of a public-private partnership announced a prize competition in fall 2013 to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads. The competition asked innovators to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that could help with reduction, mediation, and elimination of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water.

Criteria for judging included technical feasibility and accompanying strategic plans for making solutions available and useful. Innovators who met the challenge requirements were each awarded $5,000. They and their winning ideas are:

  • Aaron Ruesch and Theresa Nelson, with the Bureau of Water Quality in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, proposed combining several data sources into a decision support tool for rapid watershed planning – in some cases, within a day. He used equations to estimate runoff, erosion and soil loss on farms. “All these things together help give us an index of vulnerability,” Ruesch says. The software means local watershed groups can “get the plans out the door quicker to get boots on the ground to implement actual practices.” Ruesch says the money will allow for more outreach and training across the state in the coming year.
  • David White, president of Ecosystem Services Exchange, proposed a real-time management system that would control water flow and nutrient loading in a field’s tile-drained water. This system would provide quantified evidence of nutrient reductions. “We believe we can reduce nitrogen by 25 to 50 percent,” White says. He is currently discussing a potential test project with officials in Charles City, Iowa. Phase two of White’s solution would pilot a nutrient trading program based on the reductions. “If we can create an asset class for farmers through water quality markets, we can reduce nutrients entering the waterways at a much lower cost.”
  • Jon Winsten, an agricultural economist and program officer at Winrock International, proposed a pay-for-performance incentive approach, called “model at the farm, measure at the watershed.” Science-based models quantify nutrient losses on individual fields. “Farmers have unique knowledge of their lands,” Winsten says. “By offering a performance-based incentive, then farmers are motivated to find the most appropriate and most cost-effective actions for their specific farms and fields. That’s the most efficient way to get conservation on the ground.” Farmers would receive secondary incentive payments when their entire watershed met reduction goals.

Winners may be part of ongoing discussions by federal and private partners to continue to bring innovative solutions to bear on the problem of excess nutrients in waterways.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Water Monitoring Innovation Thrives in Clusters

By Ryan Connair

close up of waterfallThis year’s National Water Quality Monitoring Conference is being held this week in Cincinnati, Ohio. The conference will bring together hundreds of professionals from the water industry to talk about water quality monitoring and share information about new monitoring approaches and technologies.

Cincinnati is a perfect venue for a conference on water monitoring. Not only is it home to the largest federal water research facility, it also serves as the hub of the water technology cluster Confluence. Covering the Ohio River Valley (southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky, and southeast Indiana), Confluence “stems from an EPA initiative that recognizes the importance of harnessing regional expertise to encourage economic development, and environmental and human health protection,” according to its website.

Confluence’s goal is to connect water researchers, businesses, universities, and others in the region to exchange ideas and forge partnerships. The result is more innovative water technologies, including new monitoring technologies.

Here are a few of the water quality monitoring projects flowing from Confluence members:

  • The University of Cincinnati is working to establish a Miami Valley Groundwater Observatory. The Observatory would consist of a series of monitoring wells in the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer System. The wells will serve as a testbed for real-time, wireless water quality sensors. The data collected by the sensors will be useful for modeling groundwater conditions in aquifers and similar water sources across the country.
  • EPA is working with local startup Urbanalta Technologies and the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSDGC) to develop novel sewer flow sensors that can measure flow during heavy rains, helping to pinpoint the locations of combined sewer overflows.
  • MSDGC, Northern Kentucky Sanitation District 1 (NKSD1), and the consulting firm Stantec worked with EPA on an InnoCentive challenge on sensors for combined sewer overflows. Both sewer districts have expressed interest in testing the winning technologies—which will be featured in our next blog post tomorrow morning.
  • University of Cincinnati graduate student Jacob Shidler has started a company, Liquid, to continue developing an app that will let scientists enter water quality data on the spot and upload it to the cloud. His app will make it easier for many people to contribute to a single data set, empowering citizen scientists.

These are only a few examples of the innovative water quality monitoring work coming out of Confluence—and it isn’t the only water technology cluster in the United States. EPA is currently working with more than a dozen water cluster initiatives across the country. We’re excited to see what else they come up with!

About the Author: Ryan Connair supports EPA’s Environmental Technology Innovation Clusters program and works closely with Cincinnati’s Confluence.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Act On Climate: Become a Climate Citizen Scientist for Earth Day 2014

By Rebecca French

Image credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program (www.globalchange.gov).

Image credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program (www.globalchange.gov)

Did you know that everyone can participate in climate change research? Public participation in scientific research—“citizen science”—has a long and proven track record. And you and your family can join in on the fun!

Using data from a 114-year-old citizen science project, the Christmas Bird Count, EPA scientists have identified an important indicator of the impacts of climate change: on average, North American bird species have moved northward and away from coasts during the winter—some species some 200 to 400 miles north since the 1960s. I grew up in Connecticut, so that would be like my family moving our house to Canada.

Collecting information on this climate change impact would not be possible without the thousands of volunteers who count birds every year. But this is just one of many climate citizen science projects.

One type of citizen science – volunteer environmental monitoring – can be an integral part of understanding the impacts of climate change. The EPA’s National Estuaries Program (NEP) is a network of voluntary, community-based programs that safeguards the health of important coastal ecosystems across the country. Estuaries are particularly vulnerable to climate change, so getting involved with your local NEP can make a real difference.

EPA also supports many citizen science programs through the Volunteer Water Monitoring Program, and EPA’s Region 2 office has launched a citizen science website with resources to support community-based citizen science projects for water, air, and soil.

The projects above can get you involved on a local scale, but there are also climate citizen science projects that go national and even global using a type of citizen science called “crowdsourcing.” Below are some of my favorite crowdsourcing citizen science projects that combine volunteers and the internet to build national data sets for climate change research:

  • Project Budburst, Nature’s Notebook and NestWatch all require you to get outdoors and record your observations of the natural world, such as when plants are flowering or birds are laying eggs. Kids will love these, so bring your family with you.
  • Participating in Old Weather or Cyclone Center can be done from your couch with a computer and an internet connection. The scientists behind these projects need human eyes to analyze images of ship’s logs or storms. When it comes to image analysis, the human eye is still the best technology out there.

You and your family can volunteer for these climate citizen science projects for Earth Day this year to act on climate. Your contributions will be used by scientists to understand climate change impacts on weather, plants and even birds’ nesting habits.

Take some time for Earth Day this year to contribute to climate change research and learn how these projects have partnered with the public to advance climate science. Maybe you will be inspired to create your own citizen science project. Oh yeah, and have fun too!

Happy Earth Day!

About the author: Rebecca French is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Invaders in the Great Lakes

By Marguerite Huber

Smaller zebra mussels cover a larger native mussel

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I grew up in Chicago, where Lake Michigan, or simply “the lake” as we locals refer to it, is a part of everyday life. I swam in it. I ran next to it. I drank the water from it. I even paddle boarded on it.

As fond as I am of Lake Michigan, it and all the other Great Lakes are facing a big challenge. They have been invaded by more than 190 species of aquatic plants and animals not native to the area, and at least 22 fishes and 16 aquatic invertebrates pose a high risk of invading the Great Lakes in the near future.

These invasive species can be introduced deliberately or accidentally through ballast water discharge from commercial vessels, recreational boating and fishing, and pet aquarium releases. These species cause significant ecological and economic impacts in the Great Lakes. For instance the cost to the Great Lakes region from invasive species is over $200 million dollars annually!

EPA researchers have been studying how to monitor and detect aquatic invasive species through two different studies in the Duluth-Superior Harbor area, the largest Great Lakes commercial port and one under intense invasive species pressure. A Great Lakes-wide early detection program is required by 2015 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The goal of the research was to evaluate sampling designs that would help develop an efficient early-detection monitoring program for invasive species. To do so, researchers conducted intensive sampling to create a data set that could be used to explore different monitoring strategies.

One study concluded that species detection can be enhanced based on sampling equipment and habitat, making it an important step towards improving early detection monitoring. They found the most efficient strategy was to sample the mix of habitats or gear that produce the most species, but to also sample across all habitats.

In this study, researchers found high occurrences of certain invasive species such as zebra mussel and Eurasian ruffe.

In another study, researchers focused on determining the effort required for early detection of non-native zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and fish in the Harbor. To do so, the research team tallied and identified roughly 40,000 zooplankton, 52,000 benthic invertebrates, and 70,000 fish during sampling.

In the early detection study, the researchers detected 10 non-native fish species and 21 non-native aquatic invertebrate, some of which were new detections for the Great Lakes. The central finding was that detecting 100% of species is unrealistic given resource limitations, but monitoring at a level that can detect greater than 95% of the species pool is possible. At this level of effort, there is better than a 50% chance of finding a very rare species, such as one that was recently introduced.

Overall, EPA’s invasive species research is yielding a substantial advance in the ability to design monitoring and early warning systems for aquatic invasive species. Together with prevention methods, that should go a long way in maintaining the biological integrity and sustainability of the Great Lakes. That would be welcome news for anyone who relies on “the lake” for their livelihood, their drinking water, or for a place to paddleboard.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Releases Resource to Help Guide Green Infrastructure

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Rain barrel captures roof runoff in Santa Monica, CA. (Copyright Abby Hall, US EPA)

Imagine you are a municipal sewer system operator in an urban area. You probably would be well aware of the millions of gallons of untreated water that enter your combined sewer systems creating a big old mess in your local water bodies. But what if there was a cost effective solution available? And even better than low-cost, what if the solution made your community pretty and created a great community for people to live, work and play? You would jump on it, right?

Well, many communities with combined sewer overflows have been using green infrastructure – rain barrels, rain gardens, greenways, green roofs etc. – as an attractive way to reduce the stormwater runoff that goes into a sewer system. (We have blogged about it many times before.)  Green infrastructure helps reduce capital costs – traditional grey infrastructure made of pipes and other systems is often cost prohibitive – and has been shown to also reduce operational costs at publicly owned treatment works.

EPA scientists helped develop a resource guide to help more communities manage stormwater and wastewater with green infrastructure. The resource, released Greening CSO Plans: Planning and Modeling Green Infrastructure for Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control (pdf),” will help communities make cost-effective decisions to maximize water quality benefits. The resource explains how to use modeling tools such as EPA’s Stormwater Management Model to optimize different combinations of green and grey infrastructure to reduce both sewer overflow volume and total number of overflow events.  The guide also has relevant case studies to showcase how different communities are using green infrastructure.

Hopefully using this resource can help you plan green infrastructure solutions and provide a variety of tools that can help you measure and reduce stormwater runoff.

For more information about green infrastructure at EPA, please visit: http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/index.cfm

You can also learn more about green infrastructure research and science here:

http://www2.epa.gov/water-research/green-infrastructure-research

 

About the author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A New Beginning: Headwater Research

By Marguerite Huber

I like beginnings. They are a fresh start and influence our lives further down the road. Just like how we have new beginnings, all rivers have influential beginnings too. In a network of rivers up in the mountains, headwater streams are the uppermost streams furthest from the river’s endpoint or merger with another stream. They are the very beginning of miles and miles of rivers and have a great impact on what flows downstream.headwaterstream

Headwater streams and their catchments, or drainage basins, are necessary for the maintenance of healthy and productive streams and rivers. Headwater catchments also provide numerous ecosystem services to humans and the surrounding environment. These benefits include biodiversity, climate regulation, recreation, timber and crop production, and water supply and purification.

EPA researchers studied the importance of headwater catchments by focusing on the quantity and value of a few ecosystem services, and then projected that importance from a regional to national scale. They focused on three ecosystem services (water supply, climate regulation, and water purification) for 568 headwater streams and their catchments.

To assess the potential economic value of headwater catchments’ ecosystem services, researchers used published economic value estimates based on commodity price (water supply), market value (climate regulation), and damage cost avoidance (water purification).

They found the economic value of each ecosystem service as follows:

  • $470,000 – The average yearly value of water supplied through each headwater catchment.
  • $553, 000 – The average yearly value of climate regulation (through carbon sequestration) of each headwater catchment.
  • $29,759,000 – The average yearly value of improving water quality by reducing nutrient pollution.

Overall, the weighted average economic value for headwater catchments in the United States was $31 million per year per catchment. It is essential to note that the national importance of headwater catchments is even higher since the 568 catchments studied are only a statistical representation of the more than 2 million headwater catchments in the continental United States. I think it’s safe to say these beginnings provide some serious benefits!

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Take Cover! (With Vegetation)

By Marguerite Huberbuffer

Take cover!

It’s a phrase you yell to protect against something headed your way. But did you ever think that phrase could be applied to pollutants? Well, it can – vegetative cover acts as a defense against non-point source (NPS) pollutants, protecting our lakes, streams, and water bodies.

Vegetative filter strips and riparian buffers  are conservation practices that help control the amount of sediment and chemicals that are transported from agricultural fields into water bodies. They slow down the speed of runoff and capture nutrients, keep more nutrient-rich topsoil on farmers’ fields, and reduces impacts on downstream ecosystems.

To improve water quality in large watersheds, conservation managers need to know what the problems are, where the pollutants originate, and what conservation practices work best.  However, investigating all of these factors at the watershed-wide level is a very difficult and complex task. This is why EPA is working with partners to supplement an existing watershed simulation model to estimate the efficiency of riparian buffers.

USDA’s watershed simulation model, Annualized Agricultural Non-Point Source Pollution (AnnAGNPS), is used to evaluate the effect of farming and conservation practices on pollutants and help decide where to put these practices.  AnnAGNPS also predicts the origin and tracks the movement of water, sediment, and chemicals to any location in the watershed.

To supplement this model, researchers from EPA, USDA, and Middle Tennessee State University developed a Geographic Information Systems–based technology that estimates the efficiency of buffers in reducing sediment loads at a watershed scale.

With the addition of this AGNPS Buffer Utility Feature  technology to the USDA model, researchers and watershed conservation managers can evaluate the placement of riparian buffers, track pollution loads to their source, and assess water quality and ecosystem services improvements across their watersheds.

Riparian buffers and other vegetative cover, such as filter strips, are considered an important, effective, and efficient conservation practice that has been shown to protect ecosystem services at a local level. However, their full impact on a watershed-scale is still subject to ongoing research.

 

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Researching and Restoring the Gulf

By Marguerite Huber

Hypoxia sounds like some sort of deadly disease. While it is not a disease, it is in fact deadly. Also referred to as dead zones, hypoxic water kills bottom-dwelling marine life such as crabs and mussels. (To learn more, see the video at the end of this blog.)

Dead zones lack dissolved oxygen and are caused primarily by excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Too many nutrients cause algae and plankton to grow in large numbers, and as the algae die and decompose, oxygen is consumed.

Excess nutrients are especially a problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Every summer, nutrient-rich freshwater from the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf, resulting in a dead zone of about 7,772 sq. mi. that causes massive fish kills and chases other creatures further out to sea.

In an effort to understand this annual occurrence, EPA researchers have developed a modeling framework for predicting how nutrient management decisions and future climate change scenarios will impact the size, frequency, and duration of hypoxic conditions that form in the Gulf of Mexico every summer.

Providing 17% of the Nation’s gross domestic product, the natural resources of the Gulf’s coastal and marine habitats and their ecosystem services are critical to both the regional and national economy. That’s a major reason why EPA researchers are exploring ways to improve and restore Gulf water quality and aquatic habitats.

Since the 1990’s, the Agency and its partners from coastal states have been monitoring estuaries and most recently, wetlands. This baseline came in handy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, and it will continue to help researchers track the degree of recovery resulting from ongoing and future restoration actions in the Gulf.

Monitoring in the future will also help inform environmental management decisions by addressing linkages between ecosystem condition and the goods and services provided. Agency researchers have several methodologies in development for examining these linkages, including spatial analysis tools, and human well-being indices.

About the AuthorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Challenges and Combined Sewer Overflows

By Ryan Connair

sewer overflowing

Overflows happen when combined sewers are overwhelmed by heavy rain.

Every year, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) release about 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into lakes, streams, and rivers across the United States. CSOs happen when combined sewers—which carry both stormwater and raw sewage—are overwhelmed by heavy rain and flow into local waterways.

Unfortunately, this situation is hard to fix. Sewer utilities have thousands of miles of pipes to manage, so they often lack the resources to continuously monitor CSO activity or precisely measure how much wastewater is being discharged into the environment.  A low-cost, wireless sensor could change all that, though.

To find such a sensor, EPA partnered with Confluence—a water technology cluster in the southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky, and southeast Indiana area—to issue an open innovation challenge. Open innovation challenges offer awards for solutions that address a problem and draw in the best ideas from around the world.

The challenge was issued in July 2013 through Cincinnati Innovates and InnoCentive, who recently announced the winners.

First prize of $6,000 was awarded to Krishna Priya, from India, with prizes of $2,000 each going to Tamus Szalay (USA) and Andre Villemaire (Canada). Priya’s winning solution combined water level and ultrasonic sensors with a cellphone radio to create a prototype device that monitors water level and flow. During a CSO event, the system can send data back to utilities via text message.

“Real-time information provides the ability to plan for the events, respond quickly to equipment malfunction, and assure control systems are operating properly,” said Melissa Gatterdam, Superintendent of Watershed Operations at the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSDGC).

But the challenge goes beyond identifying a winning idea, it also involves a community. In this case, the community is Greater Cincinnati. Two local utilities—MSDGC and Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky (SD1)—and a local branch of the technical consulting firm Stantec provided judges for the contest. The two utilities have expressed interest in testing the prize-winning ideas identified by the competition.

“EPA has displayed exceptional leadership with this challenge, which has catalyzed the difficult process of transferring new ideas into new technologies that are ready for the marketplace,” said Chris Kaeff, Regulatory Reporting and Wet Weather Coordinator for SD1.

“The public utility stands to gain new technology that improves operational efficiency,” Kaeff said. “The entrepreneur gains a pathway to impact the market. The venture capitalist gains an opportunity for investment. And the federal regulatory and research agency moves closer to its goal of ensuring compliance.”

Partnering to issue the challenge, EPA was able to accomplish two goals: the challenge identified a solution to a pressing environmental issue and connected the winners to utilities who can put their ideas into practice by serving as test beds for the technology and potential buyers in the market for the finished solution.

About the author: Ryan Connair works with EPA’s Environmental Technology Innovation Clusters Program as a communications contractor.

Editor’s Note:

Read more about EPA research exploring ways to reduce stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows:

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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One Career (of many) Built by the EPA STAR Program

By: David Cwiertny

I wouldn’t be the environmental engineer that I am today without the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines. The research funded through this program complements EPA’s own, and that of other federal agencies, to help protect human health and the environment.

In 2004, I was entering the fourth year of my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.  As often happens near the end of a doctorate, my funding had dried up.  Finding new support was stressful and diverted my attention from research.  The EPA STAR graduate fellowship allowed me the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my priority: development of new technologies to treat contaminated groundwater.

In addition to funding my research, the EPA STAR program let me interact with other Fellows at the STAR conference, integrating me into a peer network of excellence.  And because the fellowship is very competitive, it helped me secure a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).  That job ultimately led to my current position at the University of Iowa, where the EPA STAR program remains a vital source of support as I continue to grow my research program.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

In December 2011, I was awarded an EPA STAR grant to improve small drinking water systems.  Through this particular grant, my research program is trying to develop more efficient and cost-effect treatment technologies to improve the quantity and quality of drinking water in small, rural communities, many of which often lack adequate resources for a safe and reliable water supply.  The end result will be in-home treatment units that could be of tremendous value to the number of communities, in Iowa and beyond, that rely on private groundwater wells, many of which are compromised by pollutants such as arsenic and nitrate. During my tenure as a STAR grantee, I had the privilege of mentoring an EPA STAR Fellow, Rebekah Oulton, who received the award while working in my laboratory on related work trying to improve water and wastewater treatment technologies.

At all stages of my career, the EPA STAR program has been instrumental to my development as an environmental scientist and engineer.  EPA’s support has afforded me the flexibility and continuity to pursue my research, directly addressing current environmental challenges to our nation. I’ll forever be grateful to the investment EPA has made in me, as it has allowed me to fulfill my professional dreams and aspirations, and help protect our nation’s water resources and the health of the general public that rely on them.

About the Author:

David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is a former EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship recipient and conducts research currently funded by the EPA STAR program. At the University of Iowa, he is a member of the campus-wide Water Sustainability Initiative, developing interdisciplinary research, outreach and education programs intended to increase water awareness at the university, within Iowa, and across the United States.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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