NSF Award from EAGER SAI: ‘Participatory Design for Water Quality Monitoring of Highly Decentralized Water Infrastructure Systems’

with TAMU and UTEP


August 27, 2021

A project led by Alicia Cooperman (TAMU), James Doss-Gollin (Rice), Alex Mayer (UTEP), and Shane Walker (UTEP) has been funded through the NSF EAGER SAI program. Here’s the description:

In this project, an iterative, collaborative framework for monitoring point of use water treatment in under­served communities is tested. This framework blends local expertise on social dynamics and water issues with project expertise in governance, water treatment, and systems modeling. This framework is co-developed with communities where residents rely on a combination of trucked­ and bottled water. Aging pipes and treatment facilities, droughts exacerbated, and contamination of water supplies all challenge America’s drinking water infrastructure. Water typically is treated at central facilities and then piped to users, but recent technological advances could enable water treatment at the point of use (e.g., a house). In theory, this approach can make water systems more resilient to extremes, reduce the need for pipes and pumping, help water systems scale up or down as populations change, and filter contaminants that existing plants cannot treat cost-effectively. However, point of use water treatment also shifts the burden of maintaining water treatment infrastructure, monitoring water quality, and governing water systems onto end users, creating new vulnerabilities for water infrastructure systems. In this project, an iterative, collaborative frame­work to stress test strategies for water quality monitoring in decentralized water treatment systems is developed to address this challenge. This research contributes to answering important questions for 21st century water infrastructure, including: (1) Under what biophysical and social conditions are decentralized water systems effective and likely to succeed? (2) What is the appropriate scale for decentralized water systems in small communities? (3) What are the barriers to water access in the US rural context?

In this project an iterative, collaborative frame­work to stress test strategies for water quality monitoring in decentralized water treatment systems is developed. The stress test integrates potential challenges identified by community members and leaders in focus groups with water quality sampling and mathematical modeling of water systems. The project is carried out through a series of iterative activities: qualitative interviews, field water quality observations, water system design, first round of focus groups, water security assessment, quantitative surveys and conjoint experiment, revised water system design, and a second round of focus groups. This project concerning participatory design for water quality monitoring extends observational research on water systems and social dynamics by actively engaging the community in collaborative focus groups about the current water system and potential future water systems.

For further details, see the NSF’s website.