H2O University: Water, Water, Every Where, nor Any Drop to Drink

Higher ed’s critical role in developing sustainable water conservation.
By: | Issue: August, 2015
July 21, 2015

Sitting in a San Francisco bistro before our flight home, we had a chance to listen to Golden State Warriors fans celebrate. We also heard more about California’s water conservation resources – a possible catastrophe in the making. Today, California faces daunting water challenges in the wake of one of the worst droughts on record. If the drought continues much longer, California’s agricultural economy, among other key industry sectors, is at risk.

Sadly, we now recognize that near-term water shortages change our daily water usage routines and preconceived notions. With irreversible climate change megatrends conspiring against us and rising levels of consumption, our Nation’s fresh water resources are in peril. For the future the preponderance of scientific, agricultural, and renewable energy discoveries will happen in water born environments.

At the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the Water Resources Management program tackles hot button water challenges and opportunities head on – an especially important initiative because of the University’s geographic proximity to a desert climate. That is the reason why UNLV faculty and students conduct research in livestock and agricultural produce utilization, spawning aquaculture, soil moisture redistribution, and the impact of golf course water management systems.

Because crop irrigation and large animal water and food consumption accounts for nearly 70% of the world’s fresh water use, commentators have suggested that the primary focus of water quality management should be in diversified agricultural enterprises. Increasingly, farms will eventually need to spread the impact of water efficiency – this kind of water conservation and innovation will be brought about by institutional and agricorporate partnerships.

For its part, Hydroponics will play a key role in providing agricultural yield to feed future generations as evidenced by MIT’s environmental technologies, hydroponic power plant, greenhouse, and desalination facilities to produce biofuels and fresh water.

The pressure of water scarcity and security (read as agroterrosim) will lead to the adoption of increasingly complex public policies that govern the use of and access to water. By way of example, Oregon State University hosts the Water Cooperation and Peace Education Program with a special mission – “water management is conflict management”. The program sends students all over the world to mitigate, manage, and resolve disputes through water education and research projects.

We learned from the Universities Council on Water Resources, a consortium of 50 colleges and universities, that water research must be innovative to foster stronger water data sharing arrangements across the nation. These kinds of data sharing collaborations will transform former competitors in strategic partners.

Uniquely, The University of the Pacific offers a Law degree in the field of International Water Resources, which focuses on the theory and practice of laws governing international fresh water resources.

As climate change and subsequent droughts dry up riverbeds and lakeshores, environmental conservation regulatory and enforcement agencies and allied environmental organizations must shift their attention to this important resource issue. Working with the University’s Natural Resources Institute, University of the Pacific’s law students and the institution take a leadership role as honest broker by providing a forum for full and open discourse on critical natural resource issues in California – especially in water conservation and management.

Improving water quality management practices implicates a full range of water conservation specialists, clean lab technicians, and water research scientists. These jobs will target new water learning skills – i.e. mitigating, remediating, and reclaiming former toxic freshwater sites on rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. Major opportunities for teaching, learning, and research will drive these occupations as workforce demands shift to recruit more qualified, credentialed, experienced, and scientifically skilled middle workers – read as a dedicated water quality workforce.

Community colleges, America’s workforce backbone – are at the epicenter of the next generation of water quality and waste water treatment workers. At Massasoit Community College on the Bay State’s South Shore, offerings include certificate programs in drinking water distribution and water treatment which allow Massasoit students to learn about water chemical applications, regulations, laboratory analysis, safety, and electrical and mechanical equipment.

In Tennessee at Volunteer State Community College, environmental management and environmental technology programs train students in water generated power, microbiology and limnology, waste management, toxicology, and environmental laws for safe drinking water.

Water quality management and conservation starts before postsecondary for some students at Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Massachusetts. At Minuteman, their water program affords graduating seniors the chance to earn licenses in drinking water, wastewater treatment, and other water quality disciplines. Minuteman students go on to help preserve their environments as they learn new water quality career skills connecting them to the world of learning and earning in the new green economy.

On our approach to Boston’s Logan International Airport, we now more fully appreciate that higher ed has a major role to play in providing discovery research solutions to the global water resource conservation challenges. We learned from New England Water Innovation Network Executive Director Karen Golmer that the mission for New England Water Innovation Network (NEWIN) is to make an impact on the global water challenges of safe, abundant, and affordable water for all by helping to broaden and accelerate innovation to market by providing support and exposure to new technologies and entrepreneurs. NEWIN support ranges from global networking, mentoring and promotion to physical test sites – water and wastewater facilities where new technologies can be developed and demonstrated.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.