Unique Faculty Group Tackling Water Resource Challenges

There is a growing worldwide concern about water availability for urban drinking water supplies, energy generation, and agricultural food production.

With UT serving as the lead university, a team of researchers has been awarded a $5 million grant to study the state’s water resources and identify possible areas of conflict between rapid urban growth and traditional farm irrigation needs.

That group, the Watershed Faculty Consortium, is hosting its fourth symposium on the topic on Tuesday, September 15.

While this year’s event will focus on policy and its impact on environmental laws and water needs, the symposium has drawn a diverse mix of participants due to the wide range of topics the group can cover. More than 200 people came to last year’s meeting.

“We’re at a true crossroads when it comes to how we use and regulate our water,” said John Schwartz, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at UT and a member of the consortium. “Policy can influence science, and science can influence policy, so we need to make sure we work together across disciplines, from all angles, to make sure we’re headed where we need to be.”

The keynote speaker for this year’s symposium will be Chris Thomas, US Environmental Protection Agency, Region IV branch chief for sustainable communities and watersheds.

Forbes Walker is the lead principal investigator for the group, along with ten investigators from UT’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and College of Engineering, along with investigators from Tennessee Tech University, the University of Memphis, and Middle Tennessee State University.

In addition to water availability, water quality is a major concern. More than 40 percent of the state’s streams are impaired due to soil erosion that causes excessive fine sediment in the water and harms aquatic life.

UT faculty have been researching ways to improve the state’s water quality through new treatment methods and better land management practices. The idea to meet regularly as a consortium to share ideas and collaborate on research started in October 2010.

The consortium has about forty members from five UT colleges—Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Law.

At the symposium, UT students will contribute potential ideas to addressing water needs through posters and oral presentations, said Liem Tran, associate professor in the Department of Geography and the College of Arts and Sciences representative.

A talk on the impact of Clean Water Act enforcement on biodiversity in Tennessee and Kentucky streams and the application of new technology to watershed management—such as the use of terrestrial laser scanners as effective tools for small-scale stream bank erosion and measurement—are some of the topics on the table, Tran said.

Having a mix of university faculty, local professionals, and the public brings varying viewpoints to the group and generates useful feedback for employers and businesses.

“What we had found was that people had a lot of ideas that might go well together, but people rarely were aware of what was going on in other colleges,” said Schwartz. “The original idea was to try to bring all of us together, faculty and students alike, and build collaborations.”

Entities ranging from the government of Bangladesh to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation have used data gathered by members of the consortium.

While the group and its research have benefited the world at large, one educational focus has also led to a benefit for UT students in the form of an interdisciplinary watershed minor for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Students pursuing the minor get core coursework that gives them a basic understanding of watershed knowledge. Their own discipline allows them to focus on a particular aspect of watershed management.

“For example, someone from the College of Engineering might focus on water resources while someone from the College of Law might be concerned with water rights, but they will both get a lot of the same knowledge and foundations,” said Schwartz.

 

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)