A Message From:
Water Center Focuses on Water Quality, Sustainability
By Farooq Baloch and William Whited
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center is part of a national network of Water Resources Research Institutes that serve Nebraska, in addition to the rest of the U.S. Supported by local, state and federal funding, the Water Center implements and facilitates the land-grant mission of research, extension and teaching.
“We need to develop new, more efficient technologies for everything from irrigation to treating wastewater, to cleaning up contaminated water supplies,” said Bruce Dvorak, interim director of the Water Center.
Dvorak said researchers – assisted by the Water Center – can get people to adopt some of the new technologies or modify existing technologies so they will be adopted.
The Water Center focuses on facilitating necessary research and on aiding new scientists with funding and with help, as well as assisting undergraduate and graduate-level water science students.
Dvorak, who has a doctorate in environmental engineering and is a licensed professional engineer, is also a UNL professor who teaches students and supervises students in their research. He said one of the big challenges facing the world is that there are many technologies that work very well in the lab, but are challenging to put into practice.
This is typically where the Water Center’s outreach functions come into play – getting the results of the research to water managers and to the public so they can use it. “Problem-solving is what we like to do,” he said.
Dvorak said it’s necessary to understand the science of water so people can set priorities about the use of water. To help people understand that science, the Water Center works with not only the general public, but also government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, agricultural producers and other partners to educate people about water issues.
The Role of the Water Center
The UNL Water Center was established by Congressional mandate in 1964 as one of 54 Water Resources Research Institutes at universities across the country and in U.S. territories. It operates as part of UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is a part of the UNL School of Natural Resources and is affiliated with the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute.
The UNL Water Sciences Laboratory is part of the Water Center, Dvorak said. “It aids the entry of new scientists into the water resource field, trains future water scientists and engineers and develops new methodologies for detecting contaminants in water,” he added.
The Water Center, according to Dvorak, has served as facilitator of interdisciplinary faculty discussions of water-related graduate and undergraduate curricula. It transfers the results of sponsored research to water managers and to the public through conferences, workshops, lectures, publications, news releases, the center’s website and individual contacts.
“I anticipate the Water Center is going to continue to serve that state function of serving our clientele, providing science based information and working with our faculty on a broad range of water issues,” Dvorak said, “everything from ecosystems to municipal water systems, to wildlife issues, as well as agricultural water management.”
Lorrie Benson, assistant director of the Water Center, said the Water Center is, in many ways, the entry point on water issues for the university. “We get lots of calls from the media, from water community members who are looking for research,” she said.
Benson said they also receive calls from individuals. For example, she said, a landowner called her to obtain some information about drainage tiles on his farm. In another call, a Nebraska congressional representative needed information about irrigation in Saudi Arabia.
Water Center and Partners
Dvorak said the Water Center works with a wide variety of local, state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey, with which they co-sponsor conferences. He said they also work with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources on educational sessions for staff around the state and around water modeling.
Other partners include school groups, where the Water Center assists in arranging the right extension educators and faculty to educate students about water issues.
“As far as drinking water goes, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services System, as well as the university, has an ongoing campaign to work with water utilities to help educate clientele so they understand what are the risks associated with their drinking water,” Dvorak said.
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality regulates water quality and UNL Extension often partners with them in joint educational campaigns.
Challenges and Concerns
Aging water pipelines and increasing levels of contaminants in groundwater are two of the major issues in Nebraska, according to Benson. Many small communities in Nebraska have aging pipes and plumbing, but don’t have the financial resources to replace that infrastructure. However, tap water is extensively tested for contaminants and is less expensive than bottled water.
Research and Technologies
The Water Center also collaborates with UNL faculty in water-related research, which has helped farmers move to more efficient irrigation techniques that save water and reduce inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and as a result, save dollars. Benson said many irrigators have moved to water-efficient irrigation systems. “There’s some interesting research in the area, and UNL faculty has been involved with that,” she said. “We’ve done things through education that help with initiatives like lowering the spray nozzles on the irrigation equipment so that they are closer to the ground – so less is lost to evaporation,” she added.
Research and technology are important to solve water related issues and save water but pricing water could be one solution.
Dvorak was a Fulbright scholar in the Czech Republic during the fall of 2010, researching the country’s water system. The faculty of Czech University provided science-based guidance on water issues to industry, producers and regulators, which the water center facilitates in Nebraska. The Czech Republic formerly was a socialist country and under socialism, utilities could use piped and treated water for little or no cost and so had no incentive to conserve the resource.
“When they went over after socialism to charging market rates,” he said, “the total amount of water taken from the environment was cut in half. So right off, just putting a market based pricing on is one solution.”