Across the U.S., three major research universities have decided that we need big leaps of progress in water — in water technology, water access, and water management. Those three universities — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Fresno State, and Michigan State — think they can make a difference.
Imagine, for a moment, if water in the next 20 years gets the kind of attention and investment, the kind of arresting questions, that Silicon Valley has brought to whole sectors of the economy in the last 20 years. Look what the digital revolution has done to medicine and media, to telecommunications, even to shopping.
Imagine if water management — in the environment, in treatment plants, on farms, in factories, in rural villages, in our own homes — can make those same kinds of leaps.
And imagine if water starts attracting the kind of talent that, say, iPhone app programming attracts.
There really could be a “blue revolution.”
Those three universities are focusing attention and resources on water issues, and most important, they are pulling in a whole new cast of people to do what water needs most: Ask impertinent questions.
The kind of water problems facing people around the country and the world — how to modernize water systems, how to make them more efficient, how to grow much more food with less water, how to make water re-use routine — those problems need one thing most urgently: New ways of thinking.
That’s why the programs at UNC-CH, Fresno State, and Michigan State are so encouraging, and also so important. In an era of dramatic austerity across U.S. higher education, the fact that these three universities are carving out the resources to make water issues a priority says two things: they see a real opportunity, and they see an urgent need.
UNC-CH is about to embark on a two-year campus-wide focus on water issues. The effort, starting this fall, is the first time UNC-CH has asked the entire campus to focus on a single theme.
The intent is for every school and department to focus on water issues — undergraduates, medical and public health researchers, environmental scientists, law school and public policy folks.
The water theme’s impact remains amorphous — the goals include connecting water researchers on the sprawling campus who have been unknown to each other, to “making major breakthroughs in the study of water.” But UNC is just getting started, and one of the people driving the campus-wide effort is Jamie Bartram, now a faculty member, who previously headed water efforts for both the UN and the WHO. UNC is kicking off the water focus by hosting a major conference this October on water and public health.
UNC is determined to use its resources to approach water in an interdisciplinary way. The co-chair of the water theme’s steering committee, alongside Bartram, is Prof. Terry Rhodes, a singer who is just finishing a stint as chairwoman of UNC’s department of music. Rhodes becomes UNC’s associate dean of fine arts and humanities this summer.
“We want to make sure that this initiative reaches all corners of the campus — including the fine arts and the humanities,” says Rhodes. “We are developing new courses in the college of arts and sciences on water, we are obviously going to focus on the challenges water presents. But we also will be celebrating water, with performances, theatrical and musical and artistic ventures. We want to make sure we celebrate water as well as study it.”
FRESNO STATE sits in California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation’s most important and most productive farming areas, and Fresno State has long focused on water management and helping farmers use water efficiently. A part of that work, the university has hundreds of acres of working farm land — corn fields, orchards, vineyards, dairies — and a farm store selling everything from student-grown corn to student-made ice cream to Fresno State vintage wine.
Fresno State and the San Joaquin Valley have created a little-noticed center of water expertise, what local water people call “Blue Tech Valley” — the university, it’s International Center for Water Technology (ICWT), and 120 water technology companies in the immediate area. Among those 120 companies: a water technology center for Grundfos, the world’s largest pump company, and North American headquarters for the world’s two largest micro-irrigation companies, Jain and Netafim.
In the last few years, Fresno State has begun amping up its focus on water, expanding and modernizing a state-of-the-art hydralic lab, the WET Center (Water Energy Technology). The WET Center — a soaring, 20,000-square foot space with the ability to test a full range of water systems — functions as an R&D lab for water technology researchers, and also as a third-party testing facility for companies working on new products.
The WET Center is also an on-campus incubator for new water tech companies — with three or four start-ups given office space in the lab, and another 10 startups using WET faculty and staff as advisors.
Perhaps most significant, amid the dramatic cutbacks across California’s university system, Fresno State is adding eight new faculty positions devoted specifically to water technology and water research — four starting this fall, four more starting in the fall of 2013. “The university has determined that water is a priority,” says David Zoldoske, who heads Fresno State’s ICWT.
The Blue Tech Valley proponents — both at the university and in the business community — look constantly to Stanford and Silicon Valley to understand how to inject water research with more urgency and creativity, and they understand the need for close connections between the university and the business community. A local water businessman, for instance, has donated $330,000 to support the initial research efforts of Fresno State’s eight new faculty members.
“At the end of the day,” says Zoldoske, “we’d like to be the Silicon Valley of water technology.”
MICHIGAN STATE sits in the midst of the Great Lakes, the most water wealthy area in the U.S., and one of the most water rich areas in the world.
MSU has more than 100 faculty members working on water issues — a hydrologist modeling the entire water system of Michigan in real time, an algo-ecologist who is one of the leading experts in the world on algaes, an environmental economist trying to connect sustainability and economics.
In fact, MSU already has a Water Sciences Center, dedicated to encouraging interdisciplinary water research, and a Center for Global Change, studying the impact of climate change on humans, including the impact of dramatic shifts in water availability.
But after a review last year, MSU concluded it wasn’t doing enough. Says the opening line of that report, “Michigan State University is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in water science and policy.”
At MSU, they use the phrase “The Blue Economy” — all the hidden ways water powers the economy, all the ways it could power the economy more effectively. They want the blue economy to start having the impact that the silicon economy has been having for two decades.
The immediate result is something Michigan State is calling the Global Water Initiative (GWI). As at UNC, MSU’s effort is a work in progress — still searching for a structure to magnify the water work being done, and inspire new work. Michigan State has decided to focus on its existing areas of expertise: water and food production; water and the environment; and water and public health.
Will there be some kind of campus-wide water czar? Not clear.
Will there be a single water-research building to bring scientists together in the kind of collaborative workplace that often inspires breakthroughs? Sure, but not anytime soon (at least, not without a major donor).
Most dramatically, the GWI is backed by real academic muscle: MSU is adding 16 new faculty positions devoted to water, double what Fresno State is adding, eight starting this fall, eight in fall 2014.
Says MSU’s Steve Pueppke, an associate vice president for research, “We are making the largest investment in water research of any university in the U.S.”
And MSU thinks that’s something to crow about.
Money and attention, creativity and strategic plans, of course, don’t always equal results. If they did, we’d have a cure for cancer. But water has been completely left out of the transformations that have swept through so many other areas in the last 20 years. And two things are absolutely true. The water tools that have gotten us this far — which have worked brilliantly in the developed world for the last 100 years, while somehow failing 40 percent of the people on Earth miserably — those tools are not going to cope with a new era of water scarcity across the globe.
And problems that get no investment, and no attention, don’t get solved.
Know of other university programs bringing fresh attention to water issues? Post information as a comment, below, or email Charles Fishman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Fishman is an award-winnning investigative journalist and best-selling author whose most recent book, “The Big Thirst,” tackles the question of how people can successfully manage water in a coming age of scarcity. He can be contacted at email@example.com.