Tapping the West’s water

David Sedlak, professor of civil and environmental engineering, co-directs the Berkeley Water Center. PEG SKORPINSKI PHOTODavid Sedlak, professor of civil and environmental engineering, co-directs the Berkeley Water Center. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)
Two years ago David Sedlak was invited to speak at the Nobel Conference in Minnesota about his area of expertise: urban water systems. Seeing an opportunity to tell the story of the water delivery networks that are falling apart under our feet, Sedlak did more than deliver a talk describing the problem. He came up with an idea to help solve it.

Sedlak, professor of civil and environmental engineering, co-directs the Berkeley Water Center. After delivering the talk, he joined with two other leading scholars in the field of water use to develop what would become a major new research initiative to address the intersection of people, water and the environment.

The new Engineering Research Center (ERC) is funded by the National Science Foundation. Four major research universities are partnering to lead the multidisciplinary initiative: Berkeley, Stanford, Colorado School of Mines and New Mexico State University. Experts in engineering, the social sciences, private industry and other fields will collaborate with the aim of creating pilot projects in two regions of the U.S. that could be scaled up for use around the world.

“This is unlike any collaboration I’ve been involved with before,” Sedlak says. “In order to change urban water systems, it’s going to take a lot more than engineering and technology. It’s important to work with economists, city planners, lawyers and the business sector.”

The work is urgent and compelling enough, Sedlak says, to have drawn some of the country’s foremost experts to work together in an unusual collaboration.

“Over time I have become more and more concerned about urban water infrastructure and what it is going to look like in 35-50 years,” says Sedlak, who completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and joined Berkeley Engineering in 2004.

In the late 1970s and 1980s the United States invested heavily in upgrading water delivery systems, largely due to public concerns about polluted rivers, lakes and drinking water. Over the past 30 years, however, investment in maintaining water systems has nearly dried up.

“We have an aging system that faces challenges unlike any we’ve seen in the past,” says Sedlak, whose own research includes studying the fate of hormones coming out of sewage treatment plants. “The pressures on water systems due to climate change and population growth are stressing the system to the point where it can’t respond. Simple technical fixes won’t fix the problem.”

ERC research at a test bed at the Sacramento River Delta helps achieve a vision of how natural systems may work together with engineered systems to improve water quality, enhance ecosystems and improve urban aesthetics.ERC research at a test bed at the Sacramento River Delta helps achieve a vision of how natural systems may work together with engineered systems to improve water quality, enhance ecosystems and improve urban aesthetics.Along with the four primary participating universities, the new ERC will receive additional expertise from researchers around the world. Together, scholars will collaborate with more than 20 industry partners, including utilities and multinational corporations. The goal is to generate ideas for managing water, wastewater and aquatic habitat that the public will support.

Sound like the typical work of an environmental engineer? Sedlak doesn’t think so either.

“We scientists normally stay within our comfort zone,” he laughs. “And our colleagues in the social sciences may often ask questions that don’t take into account technical capabilities. But bringing us all together creates a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”

The collaborative aspect of the ERC focuses on graduate education. Beginning this academic year at each partnering university, participating graduate students will be fully integrated into both decision-making as well as research.

“We take seriously the need to train the next generation of engineers to work in teams and think beyond their specialty,” Sedlak notes. Graduate students will have additional advisors outside of their research area and must include a related social science element in their dissertation.

One aspect of Berkeley’s contributions will focus on an engineered wetland at Discovery Bay, in eastern Contra Costa County at the Sacramento River Delta. For decades engineers have used wetlands to treat wastewater. A major problem has been that sometimes the treatment systems work, and sometimes they don’t.

Sedlak and others working with the Berkeley Water Center have developed a test system that will allow them to identify ways to make treatment systems more predictable and effective.

On several acres of controlled wetlands, Berkeley scientists are testing the ways that chemicals and water-borne pathogens can be removed from water. It’s a low-energy system that has potential to be effective while creating wildlife habitat.

The findings from Discovery Bay will inform two case studies taking place on a much larger scale. The ERC will focus on applying its research data to two regional water systems—in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Front Range of Colorado—to demonstrate ways that urban water systems can be improved.

“If we succeed in reinventing these two regional water systems, then other communities in the U.S. and worldwide could look at them as models,” says Sedlak. “We hope to bring about change starting in the lab that can diffuse out into rest of the water community.”

To learn more about the ERC, visit urbanwatererc.org.