NSF network tackles urban water problems


In the midst of devastating droughts and crippling floods, it’s no secret that U.S. water systems are among our nation’s most critical pieces of infrastructure.

A CSU-led national consortium of research universities, charged with compiling solutions and best practices for urban water systems in the U.S. and around the world, is rounding year 1 of a five-year, $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The Urban Water Innovation Network (UWIN) is directed by Mazdak Arabi, Borland Professor of Water Resources in Civil and Environmental Engineering. The 15-member organization deploys the best minds in geosciences, ecology, atmospheric sciences, water resources, urban planning and social sciences to create innovative solutions for urban water problems.

The UWIN is working toward a Water Sustainability Blueprint that will include steps and guidance for action, which should be relevant to cities of all sizes.

Year 1 focus: hear from stakeholders

UWIN’s inaugural year has focused on stakeholder engagement ­– integrating academics with utility managers, sustainability directors in major cities and leaders of nonprofits. Stakeholder workshops have been held in Miami, Baltimore, Salem, Ore., and Tucson. On Aug. 2, a stakeholder meeting for the Colorado Front Range will take place at CSU’s Lory Student Center. The following day will kick off UWIN’s annual meeting, Aug. 3-5, also on campus.

During the stakeholder meetings, UWIN leaders focused on four points: Concerns and challenges confronting urban water systems; solutions and success stories; potential solutions that haven’t been implemented, and impediments to the adoption of those potential solutions.

“Essentially what we are doing is collecting a catalogue of issues that confront urban water systems across the country, and the purpose is to learn from these communities as to how our research can help them,” Arabi said.

Key messages so far

The key messages they’ve heard so far, Arabi continued, are that while challenges run the gamut, common problems are emerging. Technical solutions are available, but what stands in the way is policy and politics. “That’s actually something that comes up at every meeting,” Arabi said.

They are also finding that impacts from climate change, be they flooding, drought or other water-related crises, tend to disproportionately affect communities of limited means.

In response, this past spring the UWIN received supplemental NSF funding to add a social, environmental and economic justice component to its mission. Heading up those efforts is Sharon Harland, a professor at Northeastern University.

Among upcoming efforts by UWIN: Scientific papers publishing a variety of research topics; a new website called Water Connect to provide a unified place for urban data analytics tools; a webinar series focused on UWIN themes; and a MOOC (massive online open course) on urban water.

The grant includes an educational component, bringing undergraduate students from different universities to CSU to work on water-related projects with CSU faculty. The first summer cohort just finished up.

Other CSU faculty involved with UWIN include professors Sybil Sharvelle, Brian Bledsoe, Neil Grigg, Jorge Ramirez, Dan Baker, and Scott Denning from the College of Engineering, and LeRoy Poff from the Department of Biology.