Sac state students and experts have their eyes on California’s water supply

There is a good chance that the water you use today has been around in some form for hundreds of millions of years. It sounds like a stretch, but the ice in your drink could have been water waded in by dinosaurs.

The reason, explains Ralph Hwang, an emeritus professor of civil engineering, is Earth’s hydrologic cycle that creates a constant exchange of water between the atmosphere and the oceans.

"The challenge is how to effectively distribute our water supply that is often unevenly distributed. We have the wrong quality of water in the wrong location and often at the wrong time," says Hwang.

At Sac State, teams of student and faculty experts are looking for ways to make the most of the water we have—when and where we have it.

Ripple Effect

Knowing that today’s water will be tomorrow’s water and so on and so on, Sac State’s Office of Water Programs creates and helps state agencies implement protective measures for future generations to use that precious resource.

"I feel like my research at Sac State is a neat opportunity to maintain water quality and ensure for future generations that clean water will be around."
– John Heltzel, environmental engineering graduate student

Environmental engineering graduate student John Heltzel is part of a team conducting experiments with rain gardens and bioretention filters to help remove impurities from rainwater runoff before it flows into the American River. 

"A primary focus for us are the five monitoring locations located in campus parking lots. This is where we find metals from brake pads, grease and oil that would normally flow into the drain and go into the river. Now hopefully it’s getting some treatment and reducing pollution," he says.

With funding from a $6 million Environmental Protection Agency grant, the Office of Water Programs is also launching a regional Environmental Finance Center that offers financial expertise to rural, disadvantaged and tribal communities.

"It allows us to offer tools, training and technical assistance to improve water, wastewater and solid waste infrastructure in smaller communities that do not have the access to water that we take for granted," explains Ramzi Mahmood, Office of Water Programs director.

Below the surface

As the topic of water becomes increasingly top of mind in the West, the Office of Water Programs and Sac State industry experts are diving into the issues of water quality and quantity in California and beyond.

In fact, last semester Sac State launched a brand-new Institute for Water, Energy, Sustainability and Technology (iWEST), an innovation hub that integrates research and training in the Sustainable Technology Outdoor Research Center, the Center for Collaborative Policy and the Office of Water Programs.

"Sac State and iWEST are looking at what makes us unique as a nexus between science, engineering and policy," says Debbie Whaley, a groundwater hydrologist and the institute’s executive director.

"We’re looking at the sustainability of our water supply. We need new policies, improved infrastructure and we need to change public behavior to meet what we understand as scientists," adds Whaley, who also points to opportunities for students like Heltzel to participate in applied research and projects.

"If students can see the kind of jobs they can get based on projects with faculty, it’ll help them transition to a meaningful career," she says. "We need that next generation of scientists, social scientists and engineers to carry on the work that we’ve started."

Turning the tide

The fact that Californians can no longer take water for granted is beginning to resonate after years of brown lawns and water restrictions, Sac State experts say.

"If you look at recent history, we have had some drought years, but it didn’t last long enough for the public to understand that we need to be careful with our water resources. We are now in a long enough drought that the public and politicians are pushing for changes," adds Mahmood.

Hwang, Whaley, and Mahmood in front of Guy West Bridge WATER WISDOM—(from left) Sac State water experts Ralph Hwang, Debbie Whaley and Ramzi Mahmood, seen here at the campus'' Guy West Bridge, are looking at ways to keep California's water supply clean, safe and available.

Moving forward, Hwang contends, there needs to be a change in mindset when it comes to how we think about managing and conserving water.

"It’s hard to develop new sources, so the easiest way is to start by using less water at home," he says.

But could something as simple as a semantic shift — and getting past the "ick factor"—be a step in the right direction to understanding the true value of this precious resource? Possibly, if you consider that the Water Environment Federation replaced the term "water treatment plant" with "water resource recovery facility" in an effort to focus on the benefits of treatment rather than the waste entering facilities.

"Signs and symbols, and their meanings are highly important to who we are, so even these kinds of subtle shifts in meaning can be potentially quite powerful," says Michael Walker, professor of anthropology.

And yes, he adds, the power of words can be a start to what is needed to create a cultural shift that promotes the idea that every drop counts.

"We are fortunate that the University is committed to empowering and supporting students and faculty to undertake research that focuses on solving today’s water challenges," Whaley says.

Sacramento native Heltzel agrees and feels a personal connection to his work.

"I grew up going fishing with my dad on the American River," Heltzel says. "I feel like my research at Sac State is a neat opportunity to maintain water quality and ensure for future generations that clean water will be around."

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