H2O S.O.S.

Why should we be alarmed about water?

Water appears to be everywhere, especially in Michigan. The state is surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes and their harbors, more than 11,000 inland lakes and more than 300 rivers. Looks, however, can be deceiving.

Yes, 70 percent of the planet is covered by water. But more than 97 percent of it is salt water, and only about 2 percent is fresh. The world’s seven billion people—and all of the crops and livestock on which they depend—tap into this 2 percent to quench their thirst. And as the population grows, drinking water supplies will become further depleted.

Time is critical, and alarm bells are ringing. Already continental and population giants such as India are facing serious water crises. In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, spanning from the Dakotas to Texas, has dried up in some areas. And the Great Lakes’ water levels have reached historic lows.

Living for today—and tomorrow

Michigan State University scientists are working to ensure the world has clean, healthy water supplies today—and for years to come. Some have dedicated their careers to preserving and protecting this precious commodity. And through the university’s Global Water Initiative, MSU will add 16 new scientists to its team of more than 100 faculty members who conduct water research.

Veteran water scientist Joan Rose has been studying waterborne disease and water pollution for more than 20 years. MSU’s Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research, Rose is a renowned expert whose laboratory is the world’s rivers, lakes and aquifers. Rose occasionally jests that her career is flushed down the toilet. The humorous entre serves as an icebreaker for the serious issues she tackles, including the estimated 19 million waterborne illnesses in the United States that are spawned from contaminated drinking water—5.4 million cases from groundwater and 13 million from surface water. The illnesses run the gamut from diarrhea to skin infections and from meningitis to kidney failure.

“Water is life on our planet, and water quality is tied directly to our health,” Rose says. “Waterborne diseases remain one of our largest causes of outbreaks globally. Yet, they’re not well cataloged.” More times than not, when there’s a major waterborne illness outbreak in the world, Rose is part of the effort to address it. Working with the international science community, she helps countries invest in and develop better tools—such as DNA markers that indicate the source of pollution and microbial source-tracking devices—to protect the world’s water quality, and thus, the world’s health.

Collaborating with scientists is key to the impact of Rose’s work, but keeping the general public abreast of the challenges and advances in her field is equally important. Via a blog on Huffington Post, the MSU expert covers how water cycles are changing (“not your grandparents’ water cycle”) and the existence of new water-borne pathogens, such as Arcobacter, which has been found in 75 percent of Lake Erie’s water samples.

Tapping the data sea

While Rose’s lab scours the world, Patricia Soranno, professor of fisheries and wildlife, focuses on the sea of data collected on waterways in the United States. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, states have been monitoring water quality since the 1970s. Most studies using the resulting data have focused on individual bodies of water. By pioneering the new field of landscape limnology, however, Soranno is demonstrating how water, people and the environment are intertwined. Her team has developed tools that show how bodies of water are integrated elements in surrounding landscapes and is working to develop approaches needed for multi-ecosystem management.

Armed with this detailed information, communities and states can better manage the impact of urban and suburban development, fish stocking and regulations, herbicide applications and water withdrawal policies. And each plan would be tailored for a particular region.

For example, a lake in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters faces different influences—both natural and manmade—than a more urban waterway, such as the Detroit River.

“There’s a treasure of untapped information sitting in filing cabinets and computers, not being used,” Soranno says. “By pulling together these separate data sets and studying large populations of lakes— traditionally studied as individual ecosystems—we hope to better predict how fresh waters are going to change, particularly in light of land use and climate change.”

Soranno and her team are excited about using tools that are being developed to study big data to better understand the environment. They are incorporating the latest statistical modeling, geographic information system tools and high-performance computing facilities to analyze nearly 40 years of data.

Recovering oil and water

Reclaiming water polluted by oil is being addressed by a team of MSU researchers led by Vlad Tarabara, associate professor of environmental engineering. Catastrophic oil spills—as well as the routine generation of oily wastewater during industrial operations such as fracking—regularly contaminate large quantities of water. Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping tens of millions of gallons of water under pressure into a single well to break through shale and release coveted natural gas. The research team is developing technologies that could separate and reclaim water used in fracking and oil spills.

“Separating oil from water used in industrial processes is a major engineering challenge,” Tarabara says. “To give you an idea of how much oil is lost in the process, it’s comparable to the amount the U.S. imports from Venezuela.”

With this in mind, in addition to treating water so it can be safely returned to the environment, the MSU team is looking for ways to recover the oil. The researchers have found a way to concentrate the oil while using nanoscale coatings that may capture some of the oil. The coatings minimize clogging and can separate from the membrane, much like a snake sheds its skin.

Protecting a river

While the world still scrutinizes the 2010 BP oil disaster, a recent petroleum accident in Ecuador was largely overlooked by the media. One MSU researcher, however, is following it quite closely.

On May 31, a landslide ruptured a pipeline, pouring 11,000 barrels of oil into the Coca and Napo rivers. While most of the rivers and the floodplains in the United States are well-documented and monitored, Ecuador’s largest river, the Napo, remains largely mysterious. Jorge Celi, an MSU zoology doctoral student from Ecuador, has been working to unravel its mystique and gauge how economic activities—and environmental accidents—affect it.

The Napo winds 670 miles through the western Amazon basin in Ecuador and Peru. It’s one of the most remote and biologically diverse regions in the world and provides access to valuable oil reserves. Local residents have long depended on the river for their livelihoods and transportation.

“As the river sees increased traffic from oil companies exploring and drilling in the region, we’ll be able to show how this impacts the natural environment,” Celi says.

The relationship of river and floodplain affects the kinds and diversity of plant communities and the feeding and migration of fish, reptiles and aquatic mammals, such as pink freshwater dolphins. Local indigenous communities depend on the river-floodplain system for small-scale agriculture and ecosystem services, including the harvest of fish, wildlife and native plants for food. Ecotourism also has become increasingly important.

“I’m optimistic that our research will play an integral role in guiding economic development to the benefit of Ecuador and the local residents, while promoting conservation of the river and the region,” Celi says.

Story by Layne Cameron - Design by Deon Foster