Their names may not often make headlines, but their power as catalysts for transformational work is indisputable. Meet six individuals who are crafting innovative solutions to our community’s most pressing social, educational, cultural, and civic needs.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor, Colorado School of Mines, Director of Research, National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure
What if your tap water came from the sewer? It would be treated, filtered, and purified, of course—and it would have the imprimatur of scientists—but still...It came from the sewer.
One day, you may not have a choice: Americans are facing ongoing climate change and population growth—especially in the arid West where water is already scarce—which means we may have to accept counterintuitive concepts like this. It’s not a new idea, but it’s being considered more than ever as a viable and potentially necessary water reuse method, and it’s just one of the water-planning strategies under discussion by Jörg Drewes and the four-month-old ReNUWIt (Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure) center, an engineering consortium of the Colorado School of Mines, Stanford University, University of California–Berkeley, and New Mexico State University. Drewes, a CSM professor, is spearheading the research—the first of its kind to receive water-specific funding (more than $40 million over 10 years) from the National Science Foundation. “Obviously the NSF realized it’s a pressing issue for our nation,” Drewes, 48, says. “Our urban water infrastructure is 50 to 100 years old. The technology used to build it is 20th-century technology. It didn’t pay attention to energy requirements.”
Using Colorado’s Front Range and the San Francisco Bay area as test zones, Drewes and his team—ReNUWIt is partnering with 27 organizations, from consulting firms and NGOs to utility companies such as Aurora Water—are developing large-scale infrastructure solutions to reuse wastewater, starting with cities in the West. Options range from harvesting storm water and storing it underground in the city, to decentralizing our purification system into smaller neighborhood treatment plants that can be tailored for specific water use. A low-level plant, for instance, might treat water only for irrigation purposes, which requires fewer resources than a plant that purifies water for drinking. One local test plant at the School of Mines, which recycles wastewater from a residential housing complex, has already been executed successfully.
It’s a daunting and time-sensitive task: While replacing America’s outdated water infrastructure could cost up to $1 trillion, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earmarked only $7.8 billion to replace and improve the drinking and clean water systems. By 2030, 80 percent of the U.S. population will live in major cities that will be forced to pay more to meet the demand for water. “The idea is to be less reliant on imported water, especially in the West,” Drewes says. “If you look around our country now, the water solutions are very similar, and, generally, are very energy-intensive. We want to be more flexible in developing solutions rather than one size fits all.”