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INFEWS Leadership Team Receives $2M NSF Award for Smart Sensing and Water Quality Forecasting Research

 image of Daene McKinney taking samples in mountainous region of Nepal

June 26,2020

UT Austin professors from the Cockrell School of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences were recently selected to receive a $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to better forecast and identify potential lapses in water quality in urban water infrastructure. The interdisciplinary team will develop more accurate predictive models that could better protect the health of the American public from contaminated drinking water and guide future infrastructure investment.

Professors Charles Werth, Lina Sela, Kerry Kinney and Lynn Katz from the Department of Civil, Architecture and Environmental Engineering, and Cory Zigler from the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences, are the project’s investigators.

The project, “Leading Engineering for America's Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure (LEAP-HI): Smart Sensing and Forecasting of Water Quality in the Water Distribution Network For Protection of Public Health”, aims to develop a broadly adaptable process- and data- driven models that will give water managers better tools to identify disturbances or lapses in water quality that could expose people to associcated health risks.

In the U.S., pathogens in drinking water from public water systems cause an estimated 33 million cases of gastrointestinal illness each year. Two main pathogens found in contaminated drinking water, Legionella and non-tuberculous Mycobacteria, cause respiratory infection.

Pathogen occurence can be caused by problems with the premise (building) plumbing (where end-users are consuming water), and in the water treatment and the distribution network (where the water is being treated and distributed), which can be caused by extreme events such as flooding or by reliability failures that occur as infrastructure ages.

Motivated by the lead epidemic in Flint, Michigan and water quality issues that occurred in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey, researchers will use a data driven modeling approaches to adequately capture the complexity of an entire water sytem for real-time prediction of imminent transient and ongoing public health risks.

Principal Investigator Werth said, “This grant represents a unique opportunity to connect water quality and public health, and to train students in these often separate but connected disciplines”.

Three unique test beds will be utilized to gather data from small and large scale systems using smart sensing and monitoring efforts. They include a laboratory-based pipe network, the water distribution system on the UT Austin campus and City of Victoria, Texas utilities.

Co-PI Sela has already begun monitoring pressure changes in the water distribution system on campus. She said, “Utilizing more advanced sensing and models, and promoting collaboration between academic research and public utilities will support the modernization of urban water systems.”

Katz and Kinney have also previously collected water quality data related to Hurricane Harvey, highlighting changes in microbial composition of the water in the distribution system.

The project also includes interdisciplinary training of graduate students across hydraulics, water chemistry, microbiology, systems engineering, big data, risk assessment, and public health. An outreach component will also be created to connect water utility, health care and public policy experts with the general public.