How Iowa is crafting creative solutions for water system woes: BTN LiveBIG

How Iowa is crafting creative solutions for water system woes: BTN LiveBIG

The Problem

Most of us don’t give water a second thought. We turn on our tap and out it flows. We flush our toilet and our waste is carried away. We tend to see ourselves as one point in a system that is more or less linear.

But our water systems, from those that provide our drinking water to wastewater treatment to environmental sources, are inextricably linked. The condition of one element greatly impacts how we deal the others. How we deal with those systems is something that University of Iowa assistant professor Craig Just has devoted his career to improving.

“We use water very casually,” says Just, Director of the Environmental Engineering and Science Graduate Program at Iowa. “We have to use water much more efficiently and effectively. We need to rethink the ways we get water to our homes and the ways we remove our waste water from our homes.”

For example, Just points to the fact that drinking water delivery systems also supply fire hydrants, which, of course, don’t need water of that quality. He points out that to carry a small amount of waste out of our homes we use toilets that consume gallons of water per flush.

The Idea(s)

Just and his research team of graduate and undergraduate students are reexamining the old paradigm of water delivery and treatment in search of more modern solutions. Particularly they are focused on resource constrained communities, those cities and towns plagues by a shrinking population and tax base and an aging infrastructure for water and sewage.

For these communities, treatment and reclamation can be a costly expense rife with inefficiencies. Take, for instance, the use of potable water to flush toilets. This is an unnecessary use of the resource. Rather, Just suggests a system whereby grey water – the water that disappears down sink and shower drains – is diverted to fill toilet tanks.

Other ideas involve moving some water treatment away from centralized facilities in favor of final treatment in the home and getting citizens to opt for flushless toilets. The last one, Just admits, will be a hard sell, but he has enlisted some help in that department.

“We work with social scientists that are all about behavioral change issues,” he explains. “If I say, ‘Let’s have a modern day outhouse,’ the immediate thought people have is that we’re going backwards, that it’s not progress. So, we’re using research to make these new approaches to sustainable water development more palatable for folks.”

Many of the innovative steps toward smart water use have come from Just’s travels abroad to places such as Nicaragua, places where scarcity of clean water, modern plumbing and treatment facilities have led to thoughtful and creative stewardship of resources.

“We tend to diminish the importance of water, in the U.S., because it comes to us automatically and it goes away automatically,” he notes. “In many other cultures, it is an absolutely sacred thing. We often think about bringing ideas to the developing world, but if it can work there, why can’t it work here?”

 

Next Steps

Just is quick to point out that few of the suggested ideas he and his team have for resource constrained communities have a chance of taking root without those communities working together towards the common good.

“One thing I’ve learned, when I go to places like Nicaragua or Ghana or Haiti, is communities that thrive have the same sort of networks of people,” says Just. “The creativity that I see from those communities to solve their problems is some of the same sort of creativity needed in our resource constrained communities here in the United States.”

In the face of mounting concerns, Just outlook remains positive, thanks in large part to his faith in active communities and students looking to make their mark by making a difference.

“I’m optimistic in general,” remarks Just. “I get excited in the midst of problems, particularly when people are around to solve them collectively. I’m also optimistic because I continuously get to see a crop of new students come through who are so enthusiastic about solving these problems.

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