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Future Forward: One Water: A Connected, Global System Requires Site-Specific Engineering

Todd Danielson on April 8, 2024 - in Articles, Profile

This interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3Pf40vR.

Stacy Hutchinson, PhD, is the associate dean of research and graduate programs in the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering at Kansas State as well as chair of the standing council of the Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA).

Stacy Hutchinson’s passion is water, and she’s been working in the field of water for her entire career. With such an extensive knowledge of the subject, she’s frustrated by the siloed nature of water systems and engineering. She notes that in consulting, the specializations typically are divided into drinking water, wastewater treatment and stormwater management with little to no interface into the natural system. She strives for a system of “one water” in which all its uses are related and should be considered a single system.

“We need to accelerate our ability to create a system that integrates the human water system needs, industrial and energy water system needs and the natural water system needs,” she explains. “How do we create a framework that brings all that together?”

Better Vision

Hutchinson hopes one way to spur such unification is a recent “visioning event” of the Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA), which she chairs. The standing council consists of 37 members from industry, academia and government who represent a wide range of engineering areas that work together: the “brain trust” of ERVA.

“We work together to develop the visioning themes that ERVA then works on in creating these reports and assessing where research is needed to push engineering forward to safeguard society and our economic prosperity and health,” notes Hutchinson.

The recent ERVA report (available for download at bit.ly/48Pk2Ua) is titled “Engineered Systems for Water Security,” and its goal was to bring together academicians that work in different aspects of water with industries in this arena as well as relevant government officials needed to make change and improve water systems.

The report outlined five priorities for the engineering community to address the water crisis:

1. Increase affordability, reliability and scalability of future components.

2. Create affordable, reliable and scalable technologies.

3. Build new, resilient and adaptable infrastructure. 

4. Improve data gathering and analysis, and leverage predictive modeling and data-informed operations.

5. Develop, test and implement a water-management framework.

Like many areas of engineering, a constant focus of the discussion was on the technologies in best position to enact these results.

“We talked about technologies such as desalinization,” adds Hutchinson. “We also talked a lot about technologies that could create the ‘bio-circular’ economy: filtration systems and water-treatment systems that allow us to take water from ‘toilet to tap.’ How do we get that process, so we’re losing less water in that system?”

Additional technology pieces include data collection and analysis within the integration of artificial intelligence. “As we build these new systems, hopefully with components that fit readily into our current systems, we can start to collect more information that allows us to manage those systems better,” says Hutchinson.

As an example, she notes that aging water systems lose a lot of water after treatment and through transmission. Acoustic sensors and data collection systems can improve upon the water-delivery system and know where there are issues within the system so they can be fixed faster and with less expense.

Advice for Engineers

“The biggest advice is being cognizant that we really only have one water source that loops through all of the systems,” explains Hutchinson. “As we’re designing wastewater-treatment systems, start to think of that as a ‘resource-recovery system’ where the resources we’re recovering include clean water as well as nutrient sources that can be used back into our food-production systems.”

Engineers can help create a linked and circular water system that benefits humans as well as the natural ecosystems and environments. She also notes that although water is a global and connected problem, it’s also very site-specific. Water problems in riverine systems are very different than those in desert or coastal areas.

“Engineers need to understand the water system and the connectivity of those various components and then put that into context of where you are,” she notes. “What I have in Kansas is not what’s going on in Southern California nor what’s going on in Florida, yet we are still working in all those regions, particularly when we’re working in engineering consulting firms.

“The basics stay the same, but the value system changes a little bit as you go to different regions,” she concludes.


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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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