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Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure

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NSF Engineering Research Center for Re-Inventing America's Urban Water Infrastructure  (Stanford University)

Research Focus & Anticipated Benefits

The nation’s urban water systems are wearing out. To make matters worse, cities in the West, South and Southwest also are dealing with water scarcity.

The Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing America’s Urban Water Infrastructure aims to design new water systems that will not only meet water needs, but consume fewer resources and improve the quality of aquatic ecosystems.

Center scientists seek sustainable solutions to the deteriorating urban water infrastructure, whether focusing on water treatment systems, integrated natural water systems, or tools that allow users to take economic, environmental and social factors into consideration when making decisions about water. Researchers, for example, explore better integration of natural systems as part of urban water infrastructure to improve water quality and storage, while enhancing the urban landscape.

“We now recognize the importance of saving some of the water for ecosystem services, and protecting endangered species,” says center director Richard Luthy. “That didn’t loom large in 1970 and 1980, but it does today.” Moreover, “the goal is to use a better understanding of natural processes to improve water quality, habitats and the urban esthetic,” he adds.

Among other things, the scientists would like to design water treatment systems that can utilize the energy produced in the water itself. “There are ways to treat water so it becomes clean, and generates methane that can be used for heat, or to make electricity,” Luthy says. “You would be using materials already in the water… Essentially you are running in a mode that generates energy rather than consumes it, and you can make electricity. What could be better?”

The center, based at Stanford University, has research partners at the Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers at the Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and the University of New South Wales in Australia also contribute their expertise.

The center sponsors demonstration sites, including a wetland in Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County.

Education & Outreach

Center staff members work with students at every level from kindergarten through postdoctoral graduate, as well as teachers, professionals and the public. Programs include a mentored summer research experience for teachers, community college student outreach, water technician training at tribal colleges and a summer research program for undergrads.


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  • Photo of two workers working with geoprobe
This infiltration test best is instrumented to assess groundwater recharge and recovery. Researchers from the NSF ERC for Re-inventing America's Urban Water Infrastructure will study the geophysical and bio-geochemical processes affecting both water storage and water quality.
Rosemary J. Knight, Stanford University, Department of Geophysics