Biosphere 2 partners with water consulting firm - The Explorer: Business

Biosphere 2 partners with water consulting firm

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Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 4:00 am | Updated: 10:48 am, Wed Jul 18, 2012.

Despite a wet winter, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects Lake Mead, the largest  man-made reservoir, to drop 13 feet by January 2013 because of a decreasing snowpack and rising demand. 

Against this backdrop, the French Veolia Environment Foundation and the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 have partnered to develop water management tools and techniques that could be used to help cities and towns like Tucson and Oro Valley accurately manage current and future water resources. 

Using the model city, a village of 30 small homes and the site’s small office buildings, built on Biosphere 2’s grounds as a testing ground, the project hopes to understand the complicated relationships of water and energy usage. 

“Water is the hammer that climate change will hit the Earth with,” said Nate Allen, staff scientist and sustainability coordinator at Biosphere 2.

In January, water forecasters slashed projections for Lake Mead by 2.45 million acre-feet, representing the water supply for 4.9 million homes throughout the Colorado River basin, which is spread across seven southwestern states, including Arizona, Nevada, and California. 

The partnership will take the water expertise of the Veolia Foundation—an offshoot of the environmental services company that operates water and recycling facilities worldwide—and couple it with scientific research at Biosphere 2. 

In conjunction with researchers at the University of Arizona’s hydrology department, the partnership will work on several major projects, starting with a water index. 

As Allen points out, “Not all gallons are equal when you talk about consumption.” 

In the Southwest, where water is scarce, the index is a method that will measure physical waste or energy consumption against water usage. City managers can use this method to make better decisions, understanding where and when it’s best for a city to reuse and  recycle water and develop the best methods to do so. 

“We can use the index to evaluate different water technologies. One system might use less water, but what remains might be heavily polluted,” said Allen. “Another water system might use more water, but less energy, so we need a method to compare them.” 

“We’re working on broad ideas,” said Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, research scientist and assistant professor at Biosphere 2. “We’re thinking about questions of urban sustainability, monitoring the use of water and energy with green systems, and ultimately trying to understand water usage from watershed to cities.” 

Veolia’s strong foundation in water makes them a strong partner to understand how to smartly use and reuse water, he said. 

The partnership was the result of similar interests and “serendipity,” according to Sy Rotter, a consultant who works with Veolia. His friend, Thierry Vandevelde, the executive officer with Veolia Foundation, came out to visit and Rotter took him to Biosphere 2. 

Vandevelde recognized the potential of Biosphere 2 as a site for the foundation’s research on water usage and they began laying the groundwork. 

“It is an emergency,” said Vandevelde. “Water is vital for human population and we need new models to better design usage.” 

In the face of climate change, he said, it’s critical to look for new ways to use water, including restoration of watersheds, recycling of water, and developing new technologies. 

During a meeting held at Biosphere 2 in late April, scientists from both the foundation and Biosphere 2 met and worked on both concrete and emerging ideas to save water and energy, including new turbine designs to produce energy, using solar energy systems to treat sludge from sewer systems, as well as computer modeling techniques from the UA to forecast the best times for solar and wind energy. 

“We’re looking for processes to reinvest industrial methods,” said Vandevelde. “Dealing with the classical distresses of water supply needs important tools and a common relationship with the university.” 

As projects become concrete, the foundation will shift the work to the main company, allowing it to be more competitive while the UA gains new expertise that can be directly used at Biosphere 2 with the model city project, as well as with other water and resources research at the UA. 

“It’s a long term project that will develop new knowledge in fundamental science with applications for corporations,” said Allen. “We can leverage resources and start doing more with less.” 

 

(Editor’s Note: Paul Ingram is a science writer for the University for the University of Arizona School of Journalism.)

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