Improving Water Quality from a Micro to a Macro Scale

Dr. David Reckhow sampling water
“I’m really excited about where things are going at UMass and in Massachusetts. It’s a great moment for promoting research and technology development around water”

“I’m really excited about where things are going at UMass and in Massachusetts. It’s a great moment for promoting research and technology development around water,” says David Reckhow, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UMass Amherst.

Reckhow has been involved with water treatment, water purification, water chemistry, water contaminants, and water quality throughout his entire career. With the help of 14 graduate and undergraduate students, which make up the David Reckhow Research Group, he conducts tests and analyses to determine the effectiveness of drinking water treatment technologies. The nature of his work requires him to work closely with municipalities, and drinking water utilities both locally and nationally. Although most of Reckhow’s work is performed in a laboratory, he stresses the fact that his research is very much applicable outside those walls.

Reckhow’s group focuses on two aspects of water treatment. On one hand, the students focus on quantifying contaminant removal efficiencies of various treatment technologies as well as identifying undesirable byproducts that may be formed by the processes. For example, chlorination is a very common treatment method used to inactivate viruses and microbial contaminants. However, potentially carcinogenic disinfection byproducts may be created when natural organic matter in the water interacts with the chlorine.  Reckhow’s research group is also working to identify treatment technologies that can reduce these undesirable contaminants while still providing safe drinking water.

“My group has looked at treatment technologies that can solve a wide range of problems; one of those technologies is ferrate, and another we’ve looked at over the years is ozone,” says Reckhow. Small drinking water treatment systems face unique challenges, as many of the existing solutions for reducing undesirable byproducts require expertise and equipment they don’t have or can’t afford.

By studying emerging treatment technologies and developing new ones, the Civil and Environmental Engineering professor hopes to reduce compounds in treated water that may cause chronic disease. For example, epidemiologists have determined that there may be a link between drinking of chlorinated water and certain types of cancer, in particular bladder cancer. Toxicologists also agree that there are harmful chemicals in water, specifically related to disinfectants byproducts. Reckhow recognizes that it’s a challenge to determine a cause and effect because chronic diseases may develop 30 to 40 years after exposure to water chemicals. His research group is dedicated to finding out why treated water may be a factor in such cancers.

There are several promising technologies to reduce the formation of disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethane, one of the most common byproducts that is also the subject of federal regulation. On the pre-treatment side, Reckhow and his UMass colleague John Tobiason are exploring how coagulation, filtration, and membrane treatment may be used to remove natural organic matter prior to chlorination, thus reducing the levels of trihalomethanes in the finished water. Other treatment technologies, such as using ozone or ferrate rather than chlorine as a disinfectant, show great promise in reducing disinfection byproducts without the need to add expensive pre-treatment technology. Reckhow also tests the effectiveness of water treatment technologies on removing other potentially toxic compounds such as pharmaceuticals and related anthropogenic compounds. 

Recently, Reckhow led a team that has received an EPA grant to build one of two new national centers focused on providing technical guidance and support for small drinking water systems. He plans to help develop innovative technologies and provide guidance to small towns and cities in order to improve their drinking water quality. The EPA would also like for Reckhow and his team to help communities come up with new ways to treat their drinking water that are less energy intensive and less costly. This is a struggle for those small communities who have very limited budgets. On this project the Reckhow research group is collaborating with other universities such as the University of Texas, the University of Florida, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Illinois. He is reaching out to other universities as well.

Reckhow is also working with entrepreneurs and engineering consultants to create a water cluster in the Commonwealth, closely linked to the new EPA National Small Drinking Water System Center awarded to UMass. Their goal is to support and encourage the growth of the water industry in Massachusetts.

“The idea behind this is to use universities to help stimulate the development and application of new technologies for the water sector,” says Reckhow.

Reckhow will use the Massachusetts Water Resources Research Center (MAWRRC) to help inform small communities of new technologies that may be appropriate to their needs. Through the MAWRRC, he will be able to leverage the entire network of National Institutes for Water Resources (see Authorized by the Water Resources Research Act, 54 Water Resources Research Institutes are well-positioned to assist in advancing the state of water knowledge and management through their established networks for education and translation of research. The NIWR centers are housed at the land grant universities in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam, and thus form a primary link between water experts in our Nation’s universities and those who manage and use water. Reckhow describes the MAWRRC, the NIWR center located here at UMass Amherst, as a “megaphone” that will help spread information about opportunities around existing new technologies. The MAWRRC will also pass information on to Reckhow’s National EPA Small Systems Drinking Water Center about the needs of other communities, which is not obvious sometimes. Reckhow believes that the MAWRRC will play the biggest role of all the WRRCs because its synergistic physical location on campus with the EPA Center. It will be leading this effort and be the main portal.

Reckhow has Governor Deval Patrick on his side. The governor strongly encourages this initiative and has made water treatment one of the states’ top priorities. “The governor views Massachusetts as a key location for people interested in biotechnology, but he’s also thinking that it’s a great location for people interested in water technology,” says Reckhow.

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