UIS engineers conduct study to help rural communities reuse water

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In the United States, some cities recycle wastewater from toilets and sinks and reuse it to irrigate parks, lawns and golf courses. This process, called water reuseis especially useful in the driest years, providing cities with a buffer to store and recycle water during a drought.

But small rural communities often don’t have the money, staff or other resources to be able to do this.

“When it comes to small, rural communities, like many in Iowa, it’s really hard to find more than one type of water that they can use,” said Kaoru Ikuma, professor of civil engineering, construction and Environment at Iowa State University,” and have plan B in case something goes wrong.

Iowa State University engineers have received a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for research that will help break down barriers for small rural communities so they can recover wastewater, rainwater and agricultural runoff and reuse this water for other purposes.

The goal, Ikuma said, is to help small rural communities adopt this technology and broaden their view of water treatment and use, especially wastewater “which we may find gross”.

Ikuma said the project will help communities envision the next five to 50 years in how they reuse their water.

“It’s really reactionary,” she said, “and it’s so much harder to try to fix a problem after it’s happened than to be proactive and plan ahead.”

UIS researchers are working with researchers from the University of Rhode Island and the University of California, Berkeley on this 4-year project. Joe Goodwill, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island, said reusing water gives communities a buffer against heavy rains, drought and other environmental elements that can affect a water system.

“If you simply recycle the water you’ve used, you’re less dependent on nature to deliver that water as rain, runoff, or river flow,” Goodwill said.

But Goodwill acknowledged that it’s difficult to remove some contaminants from water, particularly PFAS, a group of toxic chemicals more commonly known as “eternal chemicals” that are linked to cancer and immune system problems. PFAS is present in wastewater and stormwater.

Goodwill said researchers will test and monitor carefully for PFAS and other contaminants, addressing the “worst-case scenario.” They will test for contaminants once the water is treated.

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