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ISU engineers leading a study to help rural communities reuse water

Sarah Hays
ISU civil, construction and environmental engineering professor Kaoru Ikuma is the lead researcher on a project studying water reuse in rural communities.

Across the U.S. some cities recycle wastewater that comes from toilets and sinks, and reuse it to irrigate parks, lawns and golf courses. This process, called water reuse, is especially helpful in drier years, providing cities with a buffer to store and recycle water during a drought.

But smaller, rural communities often aren’t equipped with the money, staff or other resources to be able to do this.

“When it comes to rural, small communities, like many in Iowa, really it’s a struggle to find more than one type of water that they can use,” said Iowa State University civil, construction and environmental engineering professor Kaoru Ikuma, “and have the Plan B if 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 remove barriers for small, rural communities so they can reclaim wastewater, rainwater and agricultural runoff and reuse that water for other purposes.

The goal, Ikuma said, is to help smaller, rural communities adopt this technology and broaden their views on how they think about treating and using water, especially wastewater “that might seem gross to us.”

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

“It's really being reactionary,” she said, “and just trying to solve a problem after it occurs is so much more difficult than being proactive and planning ahead.”

ISU 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 civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island, said water reuse gives communities a buffer against heavy rainfall, drought and other things in the environment that can affect a water system.

“If you just recycle the water that you’ve used, you’re less reliant upon nature to provide that water either in the form of rain or runoff or river flow,” Goodwill said.

But Goodwill acknowledged removing some contaminants from water is challenging, particularly PFAS, a group of toxic chemicals more commonly known as “forever chemicals” that are linked to cancer and immune system problems. PFAS is present in wastewater and rainwater.

Goodwill said researchers will test for and have a careful eye on PFAS and other contaminants, treating for a “worst-case scenario." They'll test for contaminants after the water has been treated.

Katie Peikes is IPR's agriculture reporter